A lightning storm over a drought-stricken forest can be all it takes to touch off a conflagration most reasonable people would consider a natural disaster. But federal disaster funds — which are tapped to help recovery efforts after hurricanes, floods and earthquakes — can't by used to fight wildfires.
A bipartisan bill backed by the four senators from Oregon and Idaho would change that, protecting budgets for forest thinning and fire prevention from being robbed to cover excessive firefighting costs. The legislation deserves to pass, and quickly.
Wildfires are a fact of life in the West, and federal forest agencies budget money to fight them. Because fires are a normal occurrence, it's understandable they wouldn't be considered a disaster on a par with a hurricane or an earthquake under normal circumstances.
But when conditions are right, a routine fire can erupt into a truly disastrous inferno that quickly exhausts the money set aside to deal with it. When that happens, the policy has been to take money budgeted for forest thinning and fire prevention projects and spend it on firefighting instead.
As Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden points out, fires are often bigger and last longer than they once did, in part because work that could have helped prevent small fires from becoming big ones was spent to fight them. Last year, firefighting costs nationally exceeded the fire suppression budget by $500 million — which came directly from money dedicated to fire restoration and prevention. Firefighting costs have outstripped the budget in eight of the past 10 years.
The Senate bill and a companion measure in the House would permit tapping disaster funds only when firefighting costs exceed 70 percent of the 10-year average — providing some protection against draining disaster reserves without real justification.
It's ludicrous to raid fire prevention budgets to fight disastrous fires, in effect increasing the risk that future fires will also be larger and more destructive. It would make as much sense to rescue victims of Hurricane Katrina flooding using money the Corps of Engineers had budgeted to strengthen levees to prevent flooding.
Experts are predicting a worse than usual fire season this year, which should add a sense of urgency to efforts to pass this legislation sooner rather than later.