‘Wildfire fix’ legislation before Senate committee

By:  Eric Englert
Source: Bend Bulletin

The U.S. Forest Service continues to spend more than half of its budget on fighting fires, more than it does on preventing them, causing a cycle of re-escalation and devastation across Oregon, according to agency officials and members of the Senate natural resources committee.

A hearing before the committee Thursday came as fires continued to burn across Oregon, including the 4,579-acre Whitewater Fire in the Mount Jefferson Wilderness. Nationally, wildfires are growing, too. As of Aug. 1, a land area the size of New Hampshire has burned in the contiguous U.S., Forest Service reports show.

Efforts to increase Forest Service funding have stalled in the House, but Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and other members of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee introduced a “wildfire fix” that is part of a larger bill that would address funding for floods and other natural disasters. The legislation would end “fire borrowing” by funding firefighting for the largest wildfires from a similar disaster account used to fund other natural disasters.

“It is very clear that the system is a broken, dysfunctional mess,” Wyden said. “Funding this is the longest-running battle since the Trojan War. Two hundred fifty groups have all endorsed the legislation. I asked the national fire chief the other day, what is the cost of inaction? He said $1 billion over a 10-year period.”

The fiscal 2017 budget for discretionary funding for the Forest Service is $4.9 billion, which is $787 million less than 2016. The Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal would cut another $938 million from current spending.

By 2025, as urban encroachment on Western forestlands increases, fire suppression costs will consume 67 percent of the agency’s budget, the Forest Service estimates.

The negative effects of diverting funds from prevention to suppression, known as fire borrowing, can be mitigated by technological advances. This is where private sector investments in infrared heat maps, drones and access to better weather forecasts are crucial, agency officials said.

“Infrared heat mapping helps us determine what risk of structural loss we may encounter,” said Steve King, economic development director of the city for Wenatchee, Washington. “This helps us engage all of the property owners to implement fuel-mitigation strategies so that in the event of a fire, the flames lay down before they get to the houses.”

Some small communities, because of the lack of a comprehensive prevention strategy, must make snap decisions about when to go out and fight a fire even though they may lack accurate and timely weather forecasting.

“We must find a way to improve real-time weather forecasting everywhere,” Sen. Maria Cantwell D-Wash., said. “We do not want to have a region that is not prepared because of inaccurate weather conditions.”

Wyden said wildfires have consequences beyond the fire damage. “Wildfires change landscapes so dramatically that communities are at a significantly higher risk of flooding,” he said.