July 08, 2014

Wyden, Merkley Call on Congress to Pass Fire Funding

Washington, D.C. – Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley today called on Congress to pass a proposal from the White House to provide additional fire funding to treat the catastrophic wildfires already raging in states across the western United States.

President Obama today asked Congress to include an additional $615 million dedicated to wildfire suppression costs as part of an emergency spending request. The request also includes language to allow some fire suppression funding to be funded out of a disaster account, based on a bill Wyden and Merkley introduced last year, along with 13 bipartisan cosponsors.

“I’m very pleased that the President has asked for emergency funds to cover the true costs of fighting fires this year and has joined us in calling on Congress to fund the actual cost of fighting wildfires,” Wyden said. “Sen. Merkley and I will be working with our colleagues to make sure that this additional fire money goes exactly where it’s needed: to stop these conflagrations from devouring the landscape across the West.”

“We need to break this vicious cycle of robbing fire prevention funds to fight fires that are already burning,” Merkley said. “I’m glad the President recognizes the urgency of changing the way we fund firefighting as we face another dangerous fire season. Now Congress needs to act to ensure our communities will have the resources they need to get through this fire season without making them even more vulnerable in the future.  We can and must combat wildfires in a smarter way.”

Meanwhile, pursuing every possible avenue, Wyden and Merkley continue to press for a vote on their bill, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (S. 1875), which creates a long-term solution for wildfire budgets. The bill would treat the largest fires as natural disasters and fund the costs from the same kind of disaster account that already funds hurricanes and other natural disasters. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that these fires – about 1 percent of fires annually – consume 30 percent of firefighting budgets, and thus should be treated as true natural disasters.

In doing so, the bill would also end the practice of “fire borrowing,” which occurs when the Forest Service and Interior Department are forced to steal money from other important programs to make up for a lack of funding in fire suppression accounts. Currently agencies base wildland fire suppression budgets on the average costs of the past 10 years, which has underestimated the actual costs 8 of the past 10 years. 

Figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior show that this year’s fire season is already projected to exceed the current budget by $615 million. Federal agencies are expected to spend $1.61 billion fighting fires this year, but have only $995 million available for firefighting.

The administration included the Wyden-Merkley proposal in the President’s budget request to Congress earlier this year.