October 25, 2017

Wyden: Congress Must Pass Wildfire Funding Fix in Disaster Aid

Washington, D.C. – As fires continue to burn during the most expensive wildfire season on record, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., tonight urged Senate leadership to include a wildfire funding fix in any future disaster aid legislation.

In a speech tonight on the Senate floor, Wyden urged Congress to pass legislation he introduced with a bipartisan coalition of western senators that would end “fire borrowing,” which forces agencies to rob funds from fire prevention funding to put out fires. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would stop fire borrowing by allowing the Forest Service to pay to fight wildfires similar to other natural disasters.

“Congress should not sit back while lives and property face wildfire threats, accepting a dangerous status quo of these fires only getting larger and costing more,” Wyden said. “The way the federal government budgets for these fires is broken, it literally adds fuel to the fires, and Congress has an obligation to fix it.

“There’s more work to be done this year with respect to disaster relief, and I’m going to work with my colleagues and do everything I can to see this through.”

Under the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, once agencies exceed their appropriated fire suppression budgets, they would be able to use disaster funding to pay to put out the remaining fires. Removing additional suppression costs from the regular budgets of federal agencies stops the agencies from fire borrowing from other forest work accounts, protecting that money for beneficial prevention and management activities. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would also raise the budget cap for the disaster funding so wildfires wouldn’t siphon money away from recovery efforts or require other natural disasters to “compete” with wildfires for funding.

The Senate passed a bipartisan funding bill this week to help with the cost of fighting the wildfires in western states as part of a larger disaster funding bill. However, the funding included in the bill does not fix the long-term problem of consistently underfunding fire suppression, which currently forces federal agencies to steal from fire prevention to fight fires, so-called “fire borrowing.”

In September, Wyden and several of his colleagues sent a letter to Senate leadership, urging them to pass the Wildfire Funding Disaster Act as part of disaster legislation. The letter’s signers included Sens. Mike Crapo, included Jim Risch, R-Idaho, Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Jon Tester, D-Mont., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Tom Udall, D-N.M. Many of the same senators joined Wyden in speeches on the Senate floor this week to reiterate their support for passage.

Wildfires have burned almost nine million acres of land across the West this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Dozens of lives have been lost, thousands of residents have been forced to evacuate from their homes, and the U.S. Forest Service spent $2.41 billion in fiscal year 2017 to put out fires. The agency had to borrow $576.5 million to cover the costs of fire suppression through the end of the year, and yet fires continue to burn into fiscal year 2018.

Wyden and Crapo first introduced bipartisan legislation to fix the way the federal government funds the fight against wildfires, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, in 2013.

Video of the speech is here.