The U.S. Forest Service is spending $10 million a day fighting wildfires in Oregon, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Friday during a briefing in Portland.
Nationwide, the agency’s spends $150 million per week on fire suppression.
The cost of fighting wildfires has soared. It’s now 52 percent of the Forest Service’s budget, Vilsack said.
“(It's) the first time in the history of the Forest Service that we're spending more money for fire suppression than anything else,” he said.
Agency-wide, all non-fire related spending is now frozen, he announced.
The Northwest is experiencing an unprecedented wildfire season, with three firefighters killed earlier this month and another hurt badly, and hundreds of square miles burned in Oregon and Washington.
Around the region, thick smoke has become commonplace as homes and other structures have been destroyed.
Fire managers said Friday they expect this fire season to last until through September and well into October.
Lawmakers are hoping a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate could help with mounting costs. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (D) and Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo (R) are working with other western senators to change the way wildfire suppression gets funded.
The bill would pay for wildfires out of a disaster account, similar to clean up from hurricanes and tornadoes.
Right now, funds to fight fires are often pulled from budgets aimed at prevention, like reducing the buildup of fuels on the forest floor.
Wyden said that model of funding is creating a cycle of increasingly bad fire seasons.
“What happens is, everybody’s got to dip into the prevention fund and then the problem gets worse,” he said Friday during a fire briefing with Vilsack.
“Business as usual has been that prevention, fire prevention always gets short changed — always,” Wyden said.
He said the region is suffering from a combination of high temperatures, drought and fuel buildup.
“Oregon and much of the West has just been slammed by this terrible trifecta here over the last few weeks,” Wyden said. “This could be the new norm.”
Fire officials on the ground are gearing up for what could be a windy Saturday on the east side of the Cascades. They say if forecast winds come, they could fuel large fires in Oregon and Washington.