Can Stock Photo/lenm##
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Ron Wyden: A fighting chance against fire


In the past, warm spring weather touched off the start of the worst wildfires. Now, unfortunately, one fire season essentially runs into the next.

In early summer, states were already reporting what the National Interagency Fire Center terms “large fires.” More than 1 million acres have already burned this year.

It’s time to get ahead of the terrible trifecta of high temperatures, drought and massive fuel buildup, which sparks bigger, hotter fires that cost more and burn longer. These conditions are worsened by an unsustainable funding structure, making it harder to carry out forest health projects that improve forest conditions.

Wide agreement exists that the dangerous cycle of borrowing funds from fire prevention for fire suppression must end. Together, we have been fighting for a bipartisan congressional budget fix that would provide enough funding to clear hazardous fuels and manage our forests instead of continuing to neglect them.

Last year, Congress bandaged the problem a bit by passing a bill that funded firefighting at 100 percent of the 10-year average. But the Forest Service said that amount would not have covered the costs of last year’s fire season, and this year is expected to be worse.

That’s why we are doing whatever it takes to get to a solution.

We have joined with the leaders of the Senate Energy Committee — Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; and Jim Risch, R-Idaho — in putting forward a new bipartisan compromise to fix the broken wildfire funding system.

This plan would also fund firefighting at 100 percent of the 10-year average. But in years with fewer fires, when not all the fire budget is used, this plan would siphon off leftover funding and divert it from suppression to prevention.

For the first time, this compromise would allow local communities to self-identify their fire risk, giving rural communities a voice in prevention priorities.

This proposal is not an end-all solution, but it is a step in the right direction. It would bring everyone to the table and renew our years-long call for action on wildfire funding.

Congress must start recognizing and treating wildfires like the natural disasters they are, because it is not just wildfire programs that are threatened by the current unstable funding structure. Forest Service programs serving to manage timber sale, stream restoration, trail maintenance and recreation projects in Midwestern, Eastern and Southern states also get shortchanged when money is diverted to fighting wildfires.

Over the last few years, we have visited fire camps throughout Oregon and Idaho, and have spoken about wildfires on the Senate floor. We have raised the issue in committee hearings and introduced a funding fix in bills and amendments. We have worked closely with a bipartisan and bicameral group of colleagues on a compromise.

Congress needs to act on a long-term solution to this growing problem. We will not stop fighting until federal wildfire funding policy reflects the reality that “wildfire season” has changed.

Ron Wyden is Oregon’s senior U.S. senator, an office he’s held since 1996. The Democrat serves on the Senate Energy and Budget committees and is the ranking member on the Committee on Finance.


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