A massive wildfire season has grabbed headlines in Central Oregon and across the Western United States — and that attention could propel a long-stalled congressional bill forward.
Several senators from Western states, including Ron Wyden, D-Ore., have thrown their support behind the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2017, which would dramatically shift the way fighting wildfires is funded. The bill’s proponents say the change could solve one of wildland firefighting’s fastest-growing problems.
Wyden said the bill would put an end to a practice known as “fire borrowing,” in which a federal agency, frequently the U.S. Forest Service, doesn’t budget money for fire suppression and winds up using money that goes toward other programs, including forest thinning, prescribed burns and other activities designed to reduce fires during the upcoming season.
“When you have big fires, they take from fire-prevention money and whatever else they can get their hands on,” Wyden said.
Without money for prevention, the subsequent fire season often ends up being worse than it would be otherwise, which further drains budgets for the agency.
“You find yourself in this vicious cycle,” Wyden said.
At least in theory, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would break that cycle entirely. The bill — introduced by Wyden; Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, R-Idaho; and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., in June as HR 2862 — would freeze the amount of money federal agencies could allocate to fighting wildfires.
Any costs in excess of that total would be funded the same way damage from hurricanes and other natural disasters is funded.
The Forest Service funds fire suppression, which includes everything from the cost of fire retardant to wages for the firefighters on the ground, using a rolling 10-year average of expenditures each year. However, as climate change causes longer and drier summers across much of the West and more people live close to public lands, fire seasons are getting more expensive, and these estimates frequently don’t cover the entire cost.
“We’re seeing higher temperatures earlier, and they’re lasting further into the fall,” said Jessica Gardetto, deputy chief of external affairs for the Bureau of Land Management.
Mike Illenberg, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, wrote in an email that the Forest Service’s annual wildfire suppression costs have exceeded the 10-year average in all but three years since 2002: in 2005, 2009, and 2010.
“It gets impossible to stay in front of,” Illenberg said.
And the problem has been worse than ever in 2017. So far this year, more than 8.5 million acres have burned, significantly above the 10-year average. Illenberg wrote that the agency appropriated $1.89 billion to fire suppression this year and is expected to spend up to $2.5 billion, meaning that approximately $600 million will need to be taken from other sources. While the agency doesn’t draw from fire prevention specifically, programs like forest thinning and prescribed burns can fall by the wayside.
In Central Oregon, active and awarded thinning projects have spanned around 42,000 acres of the Bend-Fort Rock and Crescent ranger districts of the Deschutes National Forests in 2017, according to forest spokeswoman Jean Nelson-Dean. Data from the Sisters ranger district was not available.
Kevin Larkin, Bend-Fort Rock district ranger, said rangers use a variety of different approaches to remove plants that can fuel a fire, including rabbitbrush, manzanita and young ponderosa pines. For projects near cities and towns, Larkin said he preferred to use mechanical thinning. In other stretches of the forest, prescribed burns work better.
“It’s a multilayered approach,” Larkin said.
Controlled burns typically happen in the forest during early-to-midspring and late fall, when forests are dry enough to catch fire, but not so dry that the fire can get out of control. This spring, however, Larkin said the window for burning was tighter than usual, thanks to a wet winter.
Deschutes County Forester Ed Keith added that the county frequently removes shrubs like bitterbrush, which is more abundant in the county than it was historically due to fire suppression efforts, using chainsaws or larger mechanical tools.
Still, Keith said the whole region has a backlog of fuel-reduction projects, leaving the area at risk for large, dangerous fires.
“We’re already behind by a massive amount,” Keith said.
Wyden and other senators have been attempting to get variations of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act passed for more than six years, and he said the larger-than-average fire season has forced people to take a closer look at funding wildfire prevention. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue invited the senators to discuss the bill earlier this month, and Wyden said there’s more momentum to get the bill passed this time around.
“We are beginning to show that this practice, fire borrowing, is common-sense defiant,” Wyden said.