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Budget Bill Includes Increased Wildfire Funding

December 19, 2015

This week Congress passed a bill that increased funding to suppress wildfires. That's after agencies spent more than $1.7 billion on wildfires in 2015. It was the costliest season on record.

Oregon Democratic Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley praised the funding increase. But they also said Congress needs to do more to ensure that firefighting doesn't consume other agency programs.

“This bill marks an enormous improvement over past years when we have dramatically underfunded fighting wildfires,” said Merkley. Now, we need a long-term solution that funds fighting massive wildfires like we fund other disasters, ensuring we no longer have to shut down other Forest Service programs to fund firefighting in bad fire years.”

For many years,  the Forest Service had to take dollars from other budgets in order to pay for fires. That means funding slated for things like trail work or restoration instead went to pay for fire suppression. The Forest Service spent more than 60 percent of its budget on fire this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"It's hobbled the ability of the agency to manage and restore forests, to reduce the fire risk in the first place, but also to protect watersheds, wildlife to provide recreation and all the other things that the public wants, " said Robert Ponnie, the undersecretary for natural resources and environment for the USDA.

Wyden and Merkley have pushed for congressional funding for fire prevention, and also for a bill that would treat catastrophic wildfires like other natural disasters.  

The bill originally also included measures that would change how firefighting is funded in the future.

The original agreement would have created a new emergency wildfire suppression fund. Agencies would have had access to those funds once they had  exhausted a majority of allocated funds. The measure also included funding for fire prevention and restoration.

"It’s disappointing a small number of members blocked that solution this year, but we’ll keep fighting until we get it over the finish line,” Wyden said.

On Friday, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack sent letters to ranking House and Senate appropriation committee members, saying he will no longer transfer dollars from other accounts for wildfire suppression.

"The American public can no longer afford delays to forest restoration and other critical Forest Service activities caused by annual fire transfers," Vilsack wrote. "If the amount Congress appropriated in FY 2016 is not sufficient to cover fire suppression costs, Congress will need to appropriate additional funding on an emergency basis."

This year's budget for fire suppression was $1 billion, $700 million less than the total spent.  

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Fire crews work to protect structures from the Okanogan Complex wildfire Monday, Aug. 24, 2015.

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