February 24, 2014

Wyden, Merkley Applaud President For Endorsing Federal Wildfire Funding Reform Plan

Washington, D.C. –Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, applauded the news that President Obama will endorse their plan to reform federal wildfire policy by funding major wildfires the same way as other natural disasters, while freeing up funding to prevent future fires. 

“The largest wildfires are natural disasters, no different from tornadoes or earthquakes,” Wyden said. “For too long, Oregon forests have suffered from a failure to invest in fire prevention work that can create healthier stands and protect rural communities from catastrophic infernos. This plan finally puts federal policy on the right track.”

"We've been trapped in a vicious cycle of robbing fire prevention funds to pay for fires that are already burning," said Merkley. "Today's announcement is a big step in breaking that cycle and ensuring we have the resources both to prevent wildfires and to fight them when they occur."

Last year in Oregon alone, 2,848 fires burned more than 350,000 acres across the state. This year fires broke out in Western Oregon more than a month ago, and projected drought threatens another major wildfire season.

President Obama announced on Monday that he plans to incorporate a bill by Wyden, Merkley, and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, S. 1875, as part of his 2015 budget proposal. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., are sponsoring the House companion bill.

Currently agencies base wildland fire suppression budgets on the average costs of the past 10 years. That approach has underestimated the actual costs 8 of the past 10 years, and forced the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department to take money from other important programs to make up the difference.

This measure treats the largest fires –roughly 1 percent of annual fires – as natural disasters, and funds firefighting efforts from the same disaster account that funds hurricane and other natural disaster relief efforts. The Forest Service estimates 1 percent of fires consume 30 percent of firefighting budgets, and thus should be treated as true natural disasters.

Removing those megafires from the regular budget could free up to $412 million for land management agencies to fund fire prevention and hazardous fuels reduction projects that can help break the cycle of increasingly dangerous and costly fires.