For five years, Sen. Ron Wyden has pushed Congress to address how U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management leaders often must divert money from other programs, including fire prevention and forest management budgets, to cover the increasingly high cost of fighting massive wildfires.
Season after season, fire spending consumed an ever-increasing percentage of the federal agencies' relatively flat budgets.
Finally, Congress listened and Oregon is likely to benefit. Eventually.
The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act was a part of the $1.3 trillion federal spending package passed by federal lawmakers and signed by the president late last month. The act creates an emergency fund of as much as $2.2 billion, which Forest Service and Land Management officials can access once they've tapped out firefighting budgets. That fund will increase to a maximum of $2.9 billion by 2027. It's a common system used to pay for hurricane and floods and — as Wyden and others have long called for — finally treats wildfires as the natural disasters they are.
The Oregonian/OregonLive highlighted the necessity for such a change in its 2016 investigation "Burned" that delved into the devastating Canyon Creek fire in John Day. That wildfire destroyed 43 homes and burned through 171.9 million square miles (445.17 million square kilometers) of private and federal forest land — some that had been scheduled for fire-prevention work that was never completed.
Wyden, who has worked doggedly on the issue along with Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, said it finally became impossible for lawmakers to ignore as the devastating 2017 season that left 43 dead and 2,187.5 square miles (5,665.6 million square kilometers) destroyed in California alone.
"The summer," he told the editorial board Tuesday, "was a wake-up call of what's to come."
Firefighting agencies spent a record $2.9 billion nationwide fighting wildfires last year alone, as The Oregonian/OregonLive's Kale Williams reported recently. The destruction hit close to home again last summer, when the Eagle Creek fire burned nearly 78.1 square miles (202.3 square kilometers) in the Columbia River Gorge and the Chetco Bar fire burned another 298.4 square miles (773 square kilometers) on the coast in southern Oregon. Both cost millions to fight.
Unfortunately, a few more fire seasons will pass before the change takes effect in 2020.
And, while the new law should stop the budget drain, no additional money has been set aside to recoup the dollars lost from needed fire prevention and habitat recovery programs. Years of so-called "fire borrowing" from those programs and nearly flat funding to those federal agencies have left many of our federal forests at risk — along with those communities that have grown up along them.
Hopefully we'll begin to see improvements from the financial stability this new law should help provide. Even better, lawmakers could continue pushing for transparency and regular audits of these federal agencies to be sure that all that firefighting money is well spent. Wyden promises he'll keep a close eye on that, too.
It shouldn't have taken five years for this logical fix to move forward. Yet this positive, bipartisan work should be lauded by Oregonians who stand to benefit from the improved health and safety of the federal forest that blanket so much of our state.
— The Oregonian