Senators float bipartisan wildfire bill

By:  Timothy Cama
Source: The Hill

A bipartisan group of senators is taking input on a draft bill to reform how the government pays to fight wildfires on federal land.

The five senators, led by Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) want the Forest Service and Interior Department to be able to increase their budget caps when they hit their maximum annual firefighting budgets.

The budgeting change, along with other measures meant to fight and prevent wildfires, aims to stop the longstanding practice of officials having to take money from other accounts, like ones designated for fire prevention.

“As fire season begins again, it’s clear that we have a real and growing problem on our hands, and to resolve it we need a comprehensive solution that addresses both wildfire funding and forestry management,” said Murkowski, chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“This bipartisan discussion draft is an important first step toward ending the destructive practice of fire borrowing and restoring healthy, fire-resistant forests,” she said.

“In an effort to move the discussion forward, we are asking for feedback on a diverse set of ideas to tackle the challenges of catastrophic wildfires,” said Cantwell, the panel’s top Democrat. “While not perfect, we are working to drive the discussion toward consensus and a 21st century management strategy.”

At the core of the bill is the idea that wildfires should be treated more like natural disasters. Agencies generally have authority to bust budget caps for those instances.

The idea has received bipartisan support from the past, and the Obama administration has pushed for similar measures in its annual budget requests.

Other provisions in the bill include allowing funds to go into wildfire prevention, easing environmental reviews related to prevention projects and encouraging the use of new technologies, like drones, to fight fires.