Disaster-scale wildfires are going to continue to be a threat. We can better prepare for the increasing costs of wildland fire suppression by providing land managers and firefighters the certainty needed to plan and allocate resources properly without robbing from other priorities during each fire season. I recently had the opportunity to join fellow Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) in speaking on the Senate floor and offering a bipartisan amendment to draw attention to the need to permanently fix wildfire funding now and end the senseless practice of raiding fire prevention and other U.S. Forest Service accounts to fight this year’s fires.
We introduced an amendment to the energy bill being debated by the full Senate that would end fire borrowing for good, stop the erosion of the Forest Service budget and ramp up fire prevention projects, thereby reducing wildfire risks and fire suppression costs. This followed our work with lawmakers from both parties and from both the House and Senate to develop the amendment, which would update the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act we introduced. That bill has support from 21 Senate co-sponsors, 145 House co-sponsors and more than 250 groups representing hunters and fishers, timber companies and conservationists.
Although a spending bill passed in December increased fire funding for one year, it still leaves agencies vulnerable to fire transfers, does not solve the problem long term and does little to hold down long-term firefighting costs. Every opportunity to achieve a permanent fix must be used, because a lack of a solution enables the problem to worsen.
The statistics from last year’s fire season are sobering. Nationally, 68,151 fires burned 10.1 million acres and cost more than $1.7 billion in suppression operations. These fires accounted for the loss of roughly 4,600 structures, and most tragically, the lives of 13 wildland firefighters. When it comes to how wildfires are budgeted, we are in a crisis. For more than a decade, as fires have raged across the West, necessary suppression costs associated with these disasters have been seriously under-budgeted.
To make matters worse, the lack of resources to fight the worst of our annual fires has forced land management agencies to engage in so-called “fire borrowing” that results in less resources for the very activities that can prevent the large, devastating fires from happening in the first place. When the Forest Service is forced to “borrow” funds to fight fires, they are actually borrowing against Idaho jobs and recreational opportunities. Fire borrowing results in less timber, jobs and access.
Less work in the woods means this harmful fire cycle is only going to get worse. The only thing worse than fire borrowing for work in our forests that improves the health of our forests and enables recreational activities on our public lands is fire itself.
While lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and in both houses of Congress are in agreement that a fix to fire borrowing is needed, there are different approaches on a legislative solution. I continue to work with these lawmakers and members across the political and jurisdictional spectrums, to find common ground on a solution that ends fire borrowing for the betterment of Idaho communities.