In Our View: Put Out ‘Fire Borrowing’

Bill that mandates dedicated funds for fighting wildfires smart, badly needed

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Predicting the severity of wildfire season in the Northwest is a lot like predicting the weather in March — you can make an educated guess using the best possible science, but you might be wrong.

So, while experts cross their fingers and forecast a relatively mild wildfire season for the upcoming summer, it is time to again examine the failure of the federal government to effectively approach the prevention and suppression of blazes that are ecologically and economically damaging. A bill recently re-introduced in Congress does exactly that.

Introduced by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would put an end to federal policy that amounts to throwing good money after bad. The bill, which is co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of 16 representatives, targets the practice of “fire borrowing” in the suppression of wildfires.

In short, the approach forces federal agencies to redirect money from other areas — namely, forest management and fire prevention — when the cost of fighting fires exceeds expectations. This leaves less money for prevention, which exacerbates the fires in future years.

It is a foolish cycle. Failing to properly manage forests and reduce the fuel for fires leads to more intense fires and increased costs down the road. “It is time to acknowledge that catastrophic wildfires should be funded like natural disasters so we can ensure that land managers have the resources they need to properly manage our forests,” Simpson said.

In 1995, wildfire costs accounted for 16 percent of the U.S. Forest Service budget; by 2016, those costs burned up 56 percent of the Forest Service budget. Part of the reason for that is the increased size and intensity of fires because of climate change and tinder-dry forests; but part of it is a lack of preventative measures because money to manage forests has been spent on fire suppression.

This problem is not a new one. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act was introduced in the House of Representatives in 2015, where it attracted more than 150 co-sponsors but failed to make it out of committee. As The Columbian wrote editorially at the time: “The use of stop-gap, backfill measures to pay for wildfires after the fact is not sustainable — at either the state or the federal level. It is time for officials to embrace the reality of a changing climate and choose one of two courses of action: Stop fighting fires in wilderness areas, or provide permanent funding for fighting them.”

There is a school of thought that says the government should avoid suppressing fires until those fires endanger lives or buildings, that fires are part of nature. Many experts agree with these assertions, while others emphasize that allowing fires to burn would lead to costly destruction of ecosystems and habitat.

Either way, the costs are rising. In 2014, Washington experienced the most devastating wildfire season in its history — a record that lasted exactly one year. In 2015, more than 1 million acres in the state burned, more than 300 homes were destroyed, and three firefighters were killed. A total of $347 million in federal, state, and local money was spent fighting those blazes.

Such expenses call for dedicated funding rather than a system that moves money around and leads to greater costs down the road. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would be a wise step toward acknowledging an immutable fact of governance: We can pay for it now, or pay more for it later.