Here's the good news: The bill that Congress passed last week for billions of dollars in aid for the victims of Hurricane Harvey also included additional money to fight this year's crop of wildfires.
It's true that the money is more or less an afterthought to the $7.85 billion Congress (quite properly) allocated to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief fund, but that doesn't make the wildfire allocation any less welcome. The approved wildfire fighting provision allows for payments to cover additional firefighting costs that go over agency budgets. Staff members for U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley said that amount is estimated to be at least $300 million, but our guess right now is that's low.
The additional money means that the federal agencies primarily charged with battling blazes (the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management) can pay their firefighting bills without having to dip too deeply into other programs. And the programs that often get raided during severe wildfire years often are those designed to pay for maintenance work on lands so that future fires don't burn with the same intensity that we've seen recently.
Which leads to the bad news: Congress still has not moved to end this practice, known as "fire borrowing," despite having ample opportunity the past few sessions. And we don't see any sign that makes us think that this dereliction of duty will end any time soon. Apparently, the preferred congressional solution to the issue of how to pay firefighting bills is to toss money at it when required — which actually is a step forward, we suppose — but ignores the better solutions that are available.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, in a letter last week to President Donald Trump, gave the president a quick primer on the issues. (A copy of the letter is included with the online version of this editorial.)
Wyden reminded Trump of the scope of this year's fire season: More than 7.65 million acres have burned (or are burning) this season across the Western United States. Nearly 28,000 firefighters are battling the blazes, and they've been shuttled from state to state as new fires erupt, often with startling speed, across the landscape. "This is a truly a national natural disaster," Wyden wrote, "on the scale of hurricanes, tornadoes or floods."
Wyden noted that fires across the West are "burning hotter, longer and more severely due to the effects of climate change. The reality is that by providing more funding to reduce hazardous fuel loads in our nation's forests we can get ahead of these disasters and reduce the length of fire seasons."
But, he added, that requires a consistent source of funding. And that's what's been lacking: Agencies faced with huge firefighting bills have no other choice but to tap into the funding for those programs. The result: As summers grow hotter and drier, forests that haven't been properly maintained become tinderboxes.
Wyden noted in his letter that Congress has been discussing this effort for a number of years. Among the solutions is one that would treat the nation's very biggest wildfires as true national disasters and allow money to fight those to come from a FEMA fund. That would help protect money used to maintain forests and other wildlands.
But these common-sense and often bipartisan solutions never seem to get the traction they need to win congressional approval; they often get tied up in broader efforts to reform federal land policies, and sink of their own weight. In the past, we thought it would take a fire season like this one to finally make lawmakers take notice of the issue. But here we are, and we have nothing to show for it except fears that each successive fire season will be worse than the one before. It's not an encouraging thought. (mm)