The Eagle Creek fire burns on in the Columbia River Gorge—as of this writing, it covers 32,000 acres. As firefighters work to contain the blaze, Ron Wyden is looking to the future.
On Tuesday, September 5, in a letter to President Donald Trump, Oregon’s long-serving Democratic senator urged the Administration to include a wildfire funding fix in any disaster relief request to Congress—like the one the White House sent for Hurricane Harvey aid last week.
“There are more than 27,700 people fighting fires in the West and firefighters have been sent from states across the country to battle these fires,” Wyden wrote in his letter. “This is truly a national natural disaster on the scale of hurricanes, tornadoes or floods.”
Wildfire funding reform has been a pet issue for Oregon’s senior senator since 2013, when he and Senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) introduced the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. That bill went nowhere, but earlier this summer a new proposed bill reauthorizing the National Flood Insurance Program included a funding fix similar to Wyden and Crapo’s. Wyden strongly supports its passage.
At issue is the way federal agencies receive money to fight wildfires: wildfire prevention and wildfire suppression funds largely come out of the same pool of money, requiring federal agencies to “steal” money from future prevention efforts every time they battle a new fire. This means, essentially, that not only is wildfire suppression underfunded, there’s less money available to prevent future fires through smart land management and fuel removal.
“Fires in the West will always be a part of the Western landscape, but they are burning hotter, longer and more severely due to the effects of climate change,” Wyden explained in his letter to Trump, who once infamously dismissed global warming as a Chinese hoax. “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.”
Wyden also took to the Senate floor on Thursday, September 7, to decry what he called "this broken system of funding the fight against wildfires." He spoke specifically about the Eagle Creek fire: "A world-renowned treasure in my home state has been devastated."
"Shoddy budgeting today leads to bigger fires tomorrow," added Wyden, imploring Trump not to "forget the West."
In Wyden’s 2013 bill, as well as the provision being considered now, a new wildfire disaster account—similar to pools of money used for other natural disasters—would end underfunding.
“The federal government must provide more consistent funding for hazardous fuel treatments that will reduce the severity of the fires that burn in our forests," wrote Wyden in the letter to Trump. "By funding forest projects that reduce the severity of wildfire fuels, land managers can better predict an otherwise unpredictable situation.”
The Senate Banking Committee is currently considering the legislation.