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Sen. Wyden works to address wildfire funding

With much of the west on fire while suffering through an extended drought, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) is working to establish legislation to help with natural disaster relief efforts and wildfire suppression funding.

Wyden has created the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (S. 1875) along with Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID) and 15 other members of congress to create bi-partisan legislation to address the rising costs of fighting wildfires.

Partnering with Wyden is the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a collective of climate economists and scientists working to proactively address the rising costs of wildfires and the impacts of climate change. In a conference call with UCS members on Wednesday, July 23, Wyden mapped out plans for taking a more logical approach to firefighting funding and supporting programs that proactively approach fire prevention.

“Scientific evidence shows that hotter conditions are resulting in longer and more devastating fire seasons,” said Dr. Rachel Cleetus, senior climate economist for UCS. “The cost of fighting fires exceeds $1.7 billion annually, we need to take measures to invest in fire prevention and safety while cutting carbon emissions that fuel climate change.”

As fire-fighting costs have escalated, a shell game has emerged with funding that Wyden hopes to resolve. According to Jim Douglas, director of the Interior’s Office of Wildfires, the cost estimates this year will exceed $500 million of the allotted budget, a trend that has occurred in seven of the last 12 years, forcing funds to be transferred from other programs to cover emergency firefighting spending. Douglas pinpointed one key issue, as the biggest fires, which are about one percent of wildfire blazes, cost roughly 30 percent of the annual budget to suppress.

With the Wildfire Disaster Fundraising Act, Wyden and partners hope to cover the largest fires under FEMA’s disaster relief federal budget rather than the wildfire suppression funds, treating massive forest fires the same as hurricanes, earthquakes, and other large-scale disasters.

“Utilizing FEMA funds for the largest fires won’t impact the federal budget in any way, it will take a more logical approach to fire suppression costs,” said Douglas.

The long-term analysis by UCS is alarming, showing that over a billion dollars annually goes into defense of homes from fire. Historic analysis proves that since 1910 fires burn twice as long today, the number of structures burned have tripled, and fire fighter injuries have quadrupled.

“Climate change is a driving force making fires larger, temperatures have risen in the west by nearly two degrees on average since 1970,” said Dr. Jason Funk, senior climate scientist for UCS. “For every degree of temperature increase the size of fires double. Small changes in temperature have led to big changes in the length of fire season, areas dry out faster creating more fuel, droughts are becoming more common and severe making forests vulnerable to wildfire. It has also led to unprecedented bark beetle outbreaks, killing trees and destroying forests. Unless we reduce the pace of climate change we can expect this to increase.”

Wyden hopes that the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act gets passed through congress quickly thanks to its wide bi-partisan support.

“We want the largest fires to be covered from disaster funding to address the rising trends of fire season,” said Wyden. “We can’t keep raiding the prevention fund, it only compounds the problem. When talking about infernos it is a disaster, and needs to be funded accordingly.”

On Tuesday, July 22, Sen. Wyden and Sen. Jeff Merkley led a collective of senators asking for swift passage of Pres. Obama’s emergency supplemental funding request, allocating $615 million immediately to assist with fighting wildfires.

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