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Our Opinion: Firefighting foolishness

A brief spell of rain has given the region a respite from drier-than normal conditions that triggered an early start to fire season, but it won't last. That's why a bill pending in Congress to change how wildland firefighting is funded is more important than ever.

Despite increasingly severe wildfires in recent years, firefighting is still not funded on a par with other disasters, such as hurricanes and earthquakes. The thinking has been that fires are a normal, every-year occurrence, not something unexpected.

But when conditions are right, a routine fire can erupt into a major conflagration, quickly sucking up the money set aside to fight it.

When that happens, forest agencies have raided money budgeted for forest thinning and fire prevention projects to cover firefighting expenses. Perhaps only government could apply such through-the-looking glass logic, but that is the reality.

Firefighting budgets are determined based on a 10-year average of the cost of wildfires. Actual costs have exceeded the budget in eight of the past 10 years. Last year, firefighting costs were over budget by $500 million; this year, the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Land Management, estimate they will exceed the budget by $470 million.

Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Mark Crapo, R-Idaho, and 12 Senate co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle are urging swift passage of a bill that would change the way firefighting is paid for. It would allow tapping federal disaster funds when firefighting costs exceed 70 percent of the 10-year average, and would place a higher priority on wildfire prevention funding.

The bill would not increase federal spending overall — the government has always fully funded wildfire suppression and will continue to do so. But it would end the short-sighted practice of robbing prevention funds to pay for suppression.

Wyden, Crapo and the bill's co-sponsors sent a letter on Thursday to Majority Leader Harry Reid, urging him to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a full vote or find another piece of legislation to advance it. President Obama already included the terms of the bill in his budget proposal to Congress, so his support is assured.

Here in the Rogue Valley, firefighters already have responded to fires that could have turned destructive, and summer has barely begun. The Two Bulls fire near Bend grew to 7,000 acres before more than 1,000 firefighters were able to bring it under control.

Local forest officials declared the start of fire season on June 2, the earliest start since 1994.

There is no time to lose. The Senate should take up S. 1875, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, without delay.