This year's wildfire season is the most expensive on record. Last year, the Pioneer Fire burned nearly 190,000 acres of the Boise National Forest.
By Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service
Photo: U.S. Forest Service
September 25, 2017 (Boise, ID) -- A rare moment of bipartisanship is catching on among Western states' members of Congress with a bill to treat wildfires more like other natural disasters.
The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act has the support of congressional delegations from Idaho and other Northwest states.
Its introduction is timely, as the cost of fighting wildfires in 2017 has already exceeded $2 billion, the most expensive year on record.
Government agencies aren't allowed to tap disaster funding to fight these infernos.
Will Whelan, director of government relations with The Nature Conservancy in Idaho, says this bill would change that.
"When we have a particularly severe fire season, the Forest Service and the other public land agencies will be able to access funds available for paying for disasters, and that will help them stabilize their budgets for managing the public's lands," he explains.
Whelan says fires have grown more severe in the last few decades, and the Forest Service budget reflects this.
In 1995, 15 percent of its budget went to fighting wildfires. Today, it is 55 percent, despite the fact that the agency's budget hasn't grown overall.
Each year, Congress appropriates money to fight fires on public lands, and that number is based on a 10-year average of fire fighting costs.
John Roberts is a wildfire mitigation forester in Boise County, the rural area where nearly 190,000 acres of forestland burned in last year's Pioneer Fire. He says the Forest Service has some great tools for fighting fires.
"They can get out on the landscape and make a landscape area, forested area, less susceptible to wildfire and more able to control a wildfire,” he explains. “But they can't do that if they're spending all their money fighting the wildfires that they could have prevented if they could do those other things."
Whelan says Idaho has more than 20 million acres of National Forest lands that provide Idahoans with water, recreation and in many cases, a living.
"All of those benefits depend on good stewardship, and that's what's at risk as an increasing share of the national Forest Service budget goes to fire suppression,” he states. “So, we need to stabilize the budgets of the agencies that are taking care of our public lands."