After years of pressure from Western lawmakers, Congress finally has taken steps to improve funding for wildfire prevention and suppression. The action should bring a much-needed end to the practice of “fire borrowing” that has exacerbated wildfires, particularly in this part of the country.
A $1.3 trillion spending bill approved by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump last month includes the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act — money dedicated to battling blazes that have been increasing in frequency and intensity.
The act creates an emergency fund of about $2 billion that can be accessed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management when the agencies’ wildfire budgets have been exhausted. In the process, the action rightly treats wildfires as natural disasters, providing funding similar to that for hurricanes and floods.
That is preferable to the previous form of funding for fire suppression. Federal officials typically have engaged in fire borrowing, using funding earmarked for forest management to fight fires during particularly damaging seasons.
The effect has been a reduction in fire prevention and a depletion of forest health ... which leads to more damaging blazes the following year … which leads to more borrowing … . That creates a cycle of increasingly intense fires year after year. Add in the impact of climate change upon the Northwest’s forests, and the problem deepens.
As Hilary Franz, Washington’s commissioner of public lands, wrote in a recent opinion piece for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin: “Last year, the Forest Service spent $2 billion battling record-setting blazes across the West — a staggering 56 percent of the agency’s budget.”
The column, co-written with Mike Stevens of The Nature Conservancy, also pointed out the impact upon Washington: “There are 2.7 million acres of ‘unhealthy’ forests across Eastern Washington, spanning federal, state, local, private and tribal lands. These diseased and dying forests make easy kindling for wildfires.”
The idea of ending fire borrowing is nothing new. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has pressed the issue for years, and Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray of Washington often have joined the chorus. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, praised the bill “so the Forest Service can be freed from having to raid its forest management budget to combat the devastating wildfires we’ve seen recently.”
It is likely that those devastating fires are the new normal.
Record-setting blazes have been common in recent years, with forest health often treated as an afterthought by federal officials. One school of thought suggests that fires should be allowed to burn until they endanger people or structures, but experts point out that blazes in remote regions are devastating to the ecology and to wildlife. And as people in Clark County were reminded last year by the Eagle Creek Fire, a large blaze can rain ash and diminish air quality for hundreds of miles.
Last fall, Washington’s Department of Natural Resources launched a 20-year Forest Health Plan, focusing upon strengthening forests and building fire resiliency. When talking about millions of acres of land — about half of Washington’s 42 million acres is forested — such a project will require decades to be implemented and develop effectiveness.
A dedicated funding stream for fighting unpredictable wildfires will help the state and federal government in maintaining forests and reducing the annual need for fire suppression. In other words, Congress has finally seen the forest for the trees.