WASHINGTON — A spending bill approved by Congress includes a bipartisan plan to create a wildfire disaster fund to help combat increasingly severe wildfires that have devastated the West in recent years.
The bill sets aside more than $20 billion over 10 years to allow the Forest Service and other federal agencies end a practice of raiding non-fire-related accounts to pay for wildfire costs, which approached $3 billion last year.
Congress gave final approval early Friday to the giant $1.3 trillion spending bill, but only after late obstacles skirted close to another shutdown as conservatives objected to big outlays on Democratic priorities.
Western lawmakers have long complained that the current funding mechanism — tied to a 10-year average for wildfires — makes budgeting difficult, even as fires burn longer and hotter each year.
The new plan sets aside $2 billion per year — outside the regular budget — so officials don’t have to tap money meant for prevention programs to fight wildfires.
“Common sense has finally prevailed when it comes to how the Forest Service pays to fight record-breaking forest fires that devastate homes and communities in Oregon and the West,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who helped broker the deal with Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. GOP Reps. Mike Simpson of Idaho and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington also played key roles, along with other lawmakers from both parties.
The Western lawmakers have been fighting for years to end “fire borrowing,” a practice they say devastates rational budgeting for the Forest Service and other agencies.
“This long-overdue, bipartisan solution to the madness of ‘fire borrowing’ will at last treat these infernos like the natural disasters they are, with the benefit that millions of dollars will now be liberated each year for essential wildfire prevention,” Wyden said in a statement.
The wildfire deal “puts an end to fire-borrowing and is a start to giving the Forest Service the predictable resources they need to reduce hazardous fuels” such as small trees and underbrush that exacerbate wildfires, Cantwell said.
“Finding a solution to the wildfire funding crisis has been a priority of mine for many years,” U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said. “So I am extremely pleased that we were able to get this done, despite the partisan division in Washington. This is an urgently needed solution for New Mexico and other Southwestern states as they begin yet another fire season and another year of drought.”
The measure establishes a contingency account through 2027, with annual deposits starting at $2.1 billion and increasing to $2.9 billion. Money from the account would only be used after funds from usual firefighting accounts are exhausted.
Wildfires have burned across dried-out Western forests and grassland in recent years, causing billions of dollars in damage in California, Oregon and other states. The Forest Service and Interior Department spent more than $2.7 billion last year fighting fires — the most expensive wildfire season on record.
The budget deal includes $100 million for fire prevention projects and recreation programs and enables utilities to work with the Forest Service to prevent trees from touching power lines and starting wildfires.
The New Mexican contributed to this report.