A coalition of Congressional Democrats and Republicans gathered in Boise Monday to tout a proposal that would change the way the federal government pays for firefighting operations in the West and beyond.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell joined Sen. Mike Crapo, R-ID, Sen. Jim Risch, R-ID, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-OR, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-OR, Rep. Raul Labrador, R-ID, and Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.
All spoke in favor of the proposal which has been included in President Obama’s budget and could possibly be in place for the 2014 fire season. If approved by Congress, it would allow the federal government to pay for the nation’s most severe fires with money from a catastrophic fund already used for costs associated with tornadoes, hurricanes and other natural disasters.
The U.S has seen more severe fires in recent years. Supporters of the legislation says the worst 1 percent of wildfires eat up 30 percent of firefighting budgets.
It has become commonplace for the U.S. Forest Service to overrun its allotment for fire suppression before the end of a fire season. Those extra costs are then typically paid for with money from other areas of the agency’s budget. Jewell says that’s hurt fire prevention efforts and actually makes wildfires worse.
“When we can’t remove hazardous materials and we can’t do prescribed burns to help prepare these ecosystems for a more natural cycle of fire,” she says. “Then we end up with a worse suppression situation. And it spirals down and we have to borrow more money, and so on.”
Sen. Wyden told reporters the cycle leads to “fire robbery” in the Forest Service’s budget. He says it’s time to make a fundamental changes.
“The reason this is so important is that the fires now are often bigger, they’re often hotter and they often last longer,” Wyden said. “And we now feel on a bipartisan basis that it’s time for a fresh approach with respect to fighting wildfire.”
Idaho senators Crapo and Risch, and others, say analysis by government budget officials in Washington have determined that making the proposed changes would have a neutral impact on the federal budget. Crapo says he’s heard very little opposition to the proposal – even from lawmakers who live in areas void of wildfires. He says the budgetary impact is the one potential stumbling block he sees for the legislation. But he and Jewell say they’re optimistic it will gain enough support in the House and Senate to pass.
The politicians congratulated and praised one another for their role in getting the legislation to this point. The issue dominated a news conference billed as an outlook on the 2014 wildfire season.
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