Feds expect historically costly wildfire season

Officials expect damage to outpace amount appropriated by Congress for relief.

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Officials have expressed concern that damage caused by wildfires will outpace the amount of aid appropriated by Congress for relief.

USA Today reports:

“Once again it looks like we are going to have another very active fire season,” [U.S. Forest Service chief Tom] Tidwell said. He said it was likely to be “very similar” to last year, when there were 63,212 fires that destroyed 3.6 million acres and cost $1.52 billion to fight.

Oregon suffered more than any other state, with nearly 1 million acres burned. And once again, officials predict the cost to fight this year’s fires will far outstrip the amount appropriated by Congress for that purpose, forcing the Forest Service and the Interior Department to “borrow” money from agency projects that would clean up vegetation-choked forests and help to lessen the number and severity of fires. [Agriculture Secretary Tom] Vilsack, [Interior Secretary Sally] Jewel and Tidwell pointed out that this pattern has occurred over and over in recent years and called for passage of bipartisan legislation that would break the cycle of “fire borrowing” by treating the most severe fires like other natural disasters, such as tornadoes and hurricanes, with the cost covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Companion bills have been introduced in the House and Senate but no action has been taken on them.

The House Appropriations Committee unveiled a budget of $3.6 billion for both wildland firefighting and prevention for the upcoming fiscal year. But officials are taking issue with the way fires are paid for, arguing they need to be treated as emergencies.

“We’re disappointed that we didn’t have the committee understanding precisely what’s a play here,” he said.

Hing said changing the way wildfires are paid for would require Congress to revise laws that govern the budget process and disaster recovery spending. Rep. Rob Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said funding isn’t the answer to the worsening wildfire problem: “Throwing more money at it, without changing management practices, does not cut it,” said Bishop, a Utah Republican. “The Forest Service must start thinking creatively.”


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