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Congress seeking new way to pay for fighting big wildfires
The Druid Fire burned about 12,000 acres last summer in Yellowstone National Park. U.S. Forest Service

Congress seeking new way to pay for fighting big wildfires

Mar 18, 2014 - The Associated Press

BOISE, Idaho -- A bipartisan effort under way in Congress would change the way the country pays to fight catastrophic wildfires, tapping natural disaster funds instead of money intended for fire prevention, lawmakers from Oregon and Idaho said Monday.

In the past, as fire seasons have progressed, money set aside for forest thinning and other fire prevention efforts has been syphoned to pay for battling the biggest blazes.

"And then, of course, the problem gets worse," said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who met with lawmakers to discuss the proposed budget reform.

The legislation introduced in Congress would direct that when firefighting costs reach 70 percent of the 10-year average, firefighting agencies could dip into the government's fund for battling natural disasters such as hurricanes.

Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho, and Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon worked together on the idea of fighting the season's biggest fires with natural disaster funds, thus sparing fire prevention and restoration money for that important work.

"Wildfires are being allowed to become disasters, and they should be funded through the disaster fund," Risch said at a news conference at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. "If we more effectively manage our lands, fewer fires will become disasters."

Restoration work includes thinning overgrown forests, clearing underbrush and removing trees that have been attacked by insects and are more fire-prone.

Jewell noted that in 2013, the fire suppression budget was exceeded by $500 million, with that money coming from fire restoration and prevention funds. Firefighting costs have exceeded their budget in eight of the past 10 years.

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