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Idaho, Oregon lawmakers push new way to pay for wildfires

The U.S. Capitol dome.

The U.S. Capitol dome. Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said they will pitch legislation to Congress this fall that would change the way the country pays to fight disastrous wildfires. File photo.

A bipartisan effort seeking to change the way the country pays to fight disastrous wildfires has been renewed after stalling repeatedly from lawmakers hesitant to approve letting firefighting agencies use dollars meant for natural disaster rather than money set aside for fire prevention.

Over the years, firefighting agencies have been forced to borrow money set aside for forest thinning and other fire prevention projects as wildfire seasons have ballooned in activity and costs.

Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon announced Aug. 12 that they are getting ready to pitch bipartisan legislation to Congress this fall.

“This is not a partisan issue,” Risch said at a news conference at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. “Our eastern and southern colleagues don’t necessarily have the same world view. Fire has always been part of the landscape out West and we’ll always have to deal with it.”

Crapo acknowledged that prior attempts to get similar bills through Congress have stalled, but he says this year supporters have the backing of key congressional committee leaders to help move it through.

The bill has also been deemed budget-neutral from the Congressional Budget Office, which has helped ease fears that it would create a “blank check” approach to fighting wildfires, Crapo said.

“It is an emergency, but it is an emergency we can solve,” Crapo said.

According to the legislation, firefighting agencies could use federal natural disaster funds for wildfire suppression, but only if nationwide firefighting costs reached 70 percent of the 10-year average.

This would prevent firefighting agencies like the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service from borrowing funds that pay for projects that help reduce fire-prone regions. This would include removing trees, clearing underbrush and clearing out overgrown forests

Lawmakers at a news conference Aug. 12 noted that while natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes qualify for emergency federal funds, it’s up to firefighting agencies to pay for battling the big blazes from their own budgets.

And as wildfires have grown in size and frequency, federal agencies have been spending more than ever to try to keep up. For example, in 1995. wildfire costs were just 16 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget. In 2015, wildfire costs consumed more than half of the overall budget, and by 2025, the agency predicts it’ll take up nearly 70 percent.

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