Our Voice: Wildfires should have natural disaster status

Washington State’s evergreen nickname has been blackened by the worst wildfire season in memory.

But despite the tragic loss of lives, homes and businesses — in addition to at least 900,000 acres — wildfires are not considered natural disasters by the federal government.

It is a distinction that matters, and one that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

The current, federal budget system does not fund wildfires the same way as all other disasters, like hurricanes, tornadoes or floods.

Instead, the money needed to fight these catastrophic fires, even if started by lightning, comes from the annual budgets of the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior.

But only so much is set aside for fighting wildfires every year. When there are extreme years like this one, there is not enough in those budgets to cover the costs.

And this has been happening a lot.

Federal Agencies have run short of wildfire suppression money eight times since 2002, according to The Nature Conservancy in Washington State.

So these agencies end up borrowing from other programs. Ironically, the money designated to help with fire prevention is one that tends to get raided to cover the cost of fighting fires.

It makes no sense.

There is a bipartisan effort, both in the House and the Senate, to change this antiquated funding system. It is known as the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act and it appears, so far, to have broad support. We hope this critical piece of legislation works its way through the political system quickly and is approved.

Many years ago, when there were not as many wildfires to battle, the present funding formula was somewhat adequate — but not anymore.

A shortage of $615 million is predicted this year because of the extreme wildfire season, according to The Nature Conservancy.

A report by the agency also said that since the mid-1980s, the incidence of large wildfires in western forests has increased four times and the length of the wildfire season has grown 64 percent.

Also, in 1991, fire management accounted for 13 percent of the Forest Service budget and today it is nearly 50 percent.

The federal government recently did come through with money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help with the escalating costs of fighting the state’s wildfires.

But that money will go to help state efforts and private interests. It does not help the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior with a long-term, reliable funding mechanism for fighting fires.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a field hearing in Seattle this week to discuss better wildfire management practices. The new wildfire disaster fund is part of that proposal.

That is encouraging.

It’s time to treat wildfires like the natural disasters that they are and fund them accordingly. One tragic season is enough.