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Congress fails to fix fire funding again

The budget bill that finally cleared Congress last week contained plenty of fodder for critics of every stripe, as all federal spending documents do simply because of their size. We take issue with one item which, while relatively small compared with the $1.1 trillion overall budget, looms large for residents of the western states: the Forest Service budget for fighting wildfires.

The good news is, Congress allocated $1.6 billion for 2017, up from just $1 billion this year. The bad news: the Forest Service actually spent $1.7 billion this year — money that had to come out of other crucial Forest Service programs after the firefighting money ran out. It was the first time the agency spent more than half its total budget just on fighting wildfires. The Forest Service has exceeded its firefighting budget in six of the past 10 years.

Oregon's congressional delegation has been trying for years to change the way firefighting gets funded, without success.

When natural disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes strike, the federal government reaches into emergency funds to cover those unexpected costs. But wildfires are not treated as natural disasters, even though many are kindled by lightning and made more intense by drought conditions and hot, windy weather.

When the Forest Service runs out of firefighting money, it is forced to cannibalize other programs to make up the shortfall. Often, that money has come from the agency's wildfire prevention budget, intended to lessen the likelihood and the severity of wildfires. That simply makes no sense.

If wildfires were treated the same as other natural disasters, money could be allocated from emergency funds.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told congressional budget leaders last week that his department will no longer raid its other funds to cover firefighting costs.

"The American public can no longer afford delays to forest restoration and other critical Forest Service activities caused by annual fire transfers," Vilsack said. Instead, Congress will have to come up with emergency appropriations.

This year's fire season was one of the worst in history. If next summer is similar, Congress may be forced to find emergency money after all. Maybe then lawmakers will finally fix the system.