November 07, 2017

Wyden, Senate Democrats Call for Permanent Wildfire Funding Fix, Comprehensive Disaster Relief in Third Disaster Aid Bill

Third disaster supplemental request expected from the administration this month

Washington, D.C. – Following the most expensive wildfire season on record, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Senate Democrats called on the Trump administration to put forward a comprehensive package to fix the government’s backwards system of wildfire funding and provide relief from the onslaught of natural disasters in recent months. The administration has committed to releasing a disaster aid package in the coming weeks. 

In a letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, Wyden and Senate Democratic senators outlined what must be included in a comprehensive package that would allow adequate investment in technology, conservation and infrastructure that will mitigate further damage in future disasters and make our communities more resilient. The senators called for a permanent fix to fire borrowing, which would protect funding for forest health work that’s been shown to reduce the severity of severe wildfires.

“Natural disasters have pummeled communities in every corner of our country this year,” Wyden said. “Year after year, the broken wildfire budgeting system shortchanges prevention funding, literally adding fuel to fires. Putting an end to fire borrowing would at long last allow America to get ahead of the West’s natural disasters – wildfires. I am calling on the administration to respond now to this crisis by stopping this senseless cycle for good.”

In October, the Senate passed a $36.5 billion emergency supplemental that contained $18.7 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Disaster Relief Fund, $16 billion for National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) debt forgiveness, $1.27 billion for nutrition assistance for Puerto Rico, and $576.5 million to combat wildfires.

That funding allowed the U.S. Forest Service to repay funds transferred – or “fire borrowed” – from other forest management accounts from which the agency needed to borrow in order to put out fires during another record-breaking wildfire season. However, that bill lacked a long-term solution to the broken system of wildfire funding, which continues to force agencies to rob funds from fire prevention funding to put out fires.

Wyden has repeatedly urged Congress and the Trump administration to pass the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which they introduced with a bipartisan coalition of western senators to end fire borrowing by allowing the Forest Service to pay to fight wildfires similar to how responses to other natural disasters are handled.

Under the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, once agencies exceed their appropriated fire suppression budgets, they would be able to access 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 management accounts, protecting that money for other beneficial prevention and management activities. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would 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.

Wildfires burned almost nine million acres of land across the West this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. This year dozens of lives have been lost to wildfire, 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.

In addition to Wyden, senators who signed the letter include: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senators Pat Leahy, D-Vt., Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Thomas Carper, D-Del., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Edward Markey, D-Mass., Christopher Coons, D-Del., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Al Franken, D-Minn., Cory Booker, D-N.J., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Gary Peters, D-Mich.