Friday, January 24, 2014

Bill would improve firefighting resources


    The National Interagency Fire Center reports that as of Nov. 7, 2013, there were 1,456 wildland fires in Idaho that burned 714,057 acres last year. As more resources go toward fire suppression, resources that could be used to implement projects that improve forest health, benefit forest communities and enhance public safety are squeezed.  To improve the health of our federal lands, decrease the threat of catastrophic fires and ensure that firefighters have the resources needed to protect our communities, I joined Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, in co-sponsoring legislation that would give our firefighters and land managers more tools for efficient and effective fire management and strengthen fire prevention efforts.
     Last summer, I had the opportunity to join Sen. Wyden in visiting NIFC in Boise to thank firefighters for their work in fighting wildfires and discuss opportunities to improve in preventing catastrophic fires by using collaborative land management efforts and stronger proactive management of the nation’s public lands. We must be as prepared as possible to address the ongoing threat of wildfires. This includes the smart allocation of limited resources in a way that does not deplete the ability to implement forward-thinking work that better enables fire prevention and improvement of the conditions that contribute to catastrophic fire.
     In eight of the past 10 years, federal agencies’ fire suppression efforts have been under-budgeted, which has led to resources being taken from important projects to cover the federal government’s response to wildland fires. For example, for fiscal year 2013, federal agencies borrowed more than $600 million from other accounts to cover the costs of fire suppression. Additionally, according to statistics from the NIFC, federal fire suppression costs have risen from nearly $240 million in 1985 to nearly $1.9 billion in 2012.
     We know that wildfires are going to continue to be a threat, and we can better prepare for the increasing costs of wildland fire management by making needed changes that will support the preparation of firefighters and land managers. That is why I partnered with Sen. Wyden in sponsoring bipartisan legislation, S. 1875, to provide for more efficient and effective fire management and decrease the threat to fire prevention. The legislation would better limit the reallocation of resources away from fire prevention and hazardous fuels reduction projects, which reduce the cycle of costly fires, and help cover the under-budgeted and growing cost of fire suppression.
     Importantly, the legislation would improve the way wildfire suppression is funded without increasing federal funding. The legislation accomplishes this by enabling emergency fire events to be treated like other major natural disasters by supporting these emergency wildfires through existing disaster programs. Emergency fire events would be funded under disaster programs, and the routine wildland firefighting costs would be funded through the regular budgeting process. By allocating funding for wildfire suppression from within existing disaster funding limits, the legislation does not increase federal funding.
     As we prepare for another fire season, it is better to take steps now that will put us on improved footing and ensure that those protecting our communities have the resources necessary to decrease the threat of fires. Firefighters, land managers and forested communities deserve assurance that steps will be taken to continually improve the federal response to wildfires. This legislation would assist with that effort.  

Mike Crapo is the senior U.S. senator from Idaho.

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