BOISE, Idaho — A bipartisan effort underway 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.

Republican Reps. Raul Labrador and Mike Simpson of Idaho have introduced a companion bill in the House.

New Mexico’s U.S. senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, have co-sponsored legislation to reform federal wildfire policy. The two Democrats issued a statement earlier this month applauding the news that President Barack Obama incorporated into his fiscal year 2015 budget proposal a plan to fund major wildfire responses the same as those for other natural disasters and free up funding to prevent future fires.

“Wildfires are as devastating in New Mexico and the rest of the West as hurricanes are on the East and Gulf coasts, and our firefighters put themselves at great risk each year to keep our communities safe. Wildfires cause tragic loss of life and over $1 billion in damage annually. They cost hundreds of millions of dollars to fight, and after years of drought, pose a greater threat each season,” Udall said. “Yet over the last several years, the federal government has underestimated the cost of wildfires, and it has had to borrow money from other programs to respond. This new plan finally puts the emphasis in the right place, providing certainty for land managers and everyone who depends on our forests.”

Said Heinrich: “We can’t choose between fighting fires and preventing them — we must do both, and this budget plan makes that possible.”

Currently, agencies base wildland fire suppression budgets on the average costs of the past 10 years, the New Mexico senators’ joint statement said. That approach has underestimated the actual costs eight of the past 10 years, they said, and forced the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department to take money from important programs, such as wildfire prevention and other Forest Service land management programs, to make up the difference.

Some opponents worry the bipartisan proposal will lead to a budget increase for fighting wildfires.

But the lawmakers said the government already is spending money each year to suppress disastrous wildfires, and this proposal adds no new funds for that. It simply offers a way to preserve fire prevention money, they said.

Experts at the National Interagency Fire Center have predicted a busy wildfire season in Southern California, New Mexico and Arizona this year, expanding into Northern California and southern Oregon later in the year. All the moisture in the Eastern United States this winter should mitigate the fire season there, the center said.

Wyden said the budget proposal arose from a meeting at the fire center in August, after agencies ran out of their budgeted funds for firefighting.

“Fires are now often bigger and hotter and last longer,” Wyden said, in part because of the frequent “robbery” of fire restoration funds for firefighting efforts. “It’s time for a fresh approach.”

Jewell said the biggest 1 percent of wildfires each year eat up 30 percent of firefighting funds.

The New Mexican contributed to this report.

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