The U.S. Forest Service says it will have more money to fight wildfires and more tools to prevent them thanks to the new wildfire funding bill Congress recently approved.
The extra resources may very well be needed in Oregon and California this year, where officials say they are already seeing an elevated risk of wildfire because of low snow pack and dry spring weather. The fire outlook is less concerning for Washington.
The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, passed by Congress earlier this year, allows the Forest Service to use disaster relief funds to fight wildfires instead of borrowing money from other parts of the agency's budget such as fire prevention.
Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon said the problem of "fire borrowing" was getting worse as hotter, drier summers created bigger wildfires.
"What we are now doing is liberating scarce funds to focus on fire prevention," Wyden said at a news conference Wednesday. "These fires are getting bigger. They’re getting hotter. They’re getting more powerful. Last year we saw a fire leap the Columbia River. Nobody ever expected you’d see something like this.”
Wyden said now, with the legislation he co-sponsored, the Forest Service can put more money and effort into fire prevention actions such as prescribed burns and thinning dead and overstocked trees. The bill loosened some of the environmental restrictions on removing trees from the forest, which will allow the Forest Service to reduce a backlog of “hazardous fuel” that can exacerbate wildfire.
The Forest Service plans on increasing the amount of acreage it treats for hazardous fuel by 30 to 50 percent this year.
Acting Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen thanked Congress for passing the legislation that will give her agency more tools to better manage forest fires.
“It’s now our job to get the work done on the ground,” she said.
Christiansen said although the full effect of the bill doesn't kick in until 2020, there are provisions that will provide additional funds to the Forest Service for fighting wildfire this year and next.
Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho said the new legislation won’t solve all the wildfire problems in the West, but it will help address them.
The Forest Service has gone from spending 15 percent of its budget on fighting fires 25 years ago to spending 55 percent today. Without the new legislation, Simpson said, the Forest Service was predicted to spend 67 percent of its budget on fighting wildfire by 2021.
“It wouldn’t have been the Forest Service anymore,” he said. “It would have been the fire agency.”