May 01, 2014

Wyden Urges Congress to Reform Wildfire Funding Ahead of Fire Season

New Report Shows this Fire Season is Already Expected to Go Over Budget

Washington, D.C. – Sen. Ron Wyden, D- Ore., today issued the following statement after the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Interior released a report stating this year’s fire season is already projected to exceed the current budget by $470 million:

“Today’s news makes clear that the federal government has to change the way it funds firefighting and it needs to be done now,” Wyden said. “It is time to break the destructive cycle that underfunds fire prevention and shorts forest management and start treating the largest wildfires that rage across the West every year for what they are – natural disasters.”

Wyden and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, introduced a bill last year (S. 1875), to treat the largest fires – about 1 percent of annual fires – as natural disasters, and fund firefighting efforts from the same disaster account that funds hurricane and other natural disaster relief efforts. The U.S. 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 millions for landmanagement agencies to fund fire prevention and hazardous fuels reduction projects that can help break the cycle of increasingly dangerous and costly fires.

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. 

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

According to the report, federal agencies are expected to spend $1.8 billion fighting fires this year, but have only $1.4 billion available for firefighting.