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Northwest Senators Renew Call To Revise Federal Wildfire Fighting Funding

Corey Haddad
The Pioneer Fire in Boise National Forest has grown to more than 73,000 acres.

A bipartisan coalition of Western U.S. lawmakers has renewed a call to change how the federal government pays to put out big forest fires. Currently, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management divert money from fire prevention and other programs to pay firefighting costs during bad fire years.

Idaho Republican senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch appeared with Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise to vent about this Monday.

"As a result of shorting prevention, when it gets hot and dry -- we have lightning strikes in our part of the world -- all of a sudden you have an inferno on your hands,” Wyden said. “As Senator Crapo just mentioned, you borrow the money to put the fire out and the problem just gets worse and worse and worse."

The solution the senators propose is to pay for catastrophic wildfires from the same pot used for other disasters such as floods, earthquakes and hurricanes. They hope to attach their firefighting budget "fix" to energy policy legislation that looks like it is moving through Congress this fall.

Western senators have tried but failed since 2013 to pass this sort of federal wildfire fighting funding overhaul. But Wyden and Risch said they have now built broader Congressional support.

Risch explained lawmakers from the Eastern U.S. "jealously guard" Federal Emergency Management Agency funds for use after hurricanes, tornadoes and such. But he and Wyden said Monday their new allies include the incoming Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York.

Sen. Schumer is concerned that Forest Service funding to combat the emerald ash borer -- a beetle which threatens trees needed by the baseball bat industry in upstate New York -- could be diverted to pay for firefighting.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.