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Congress should do more to prevent wildfires

The U.S. Forest Service expects that it will have to once again raid its budgets for forest thinning and recreation improvements this year to fight wildfires.

It happens year after year after year. Not enough money is allocated to fight wildfires, so money that might go to projects to reduce wildfire risk and other things gets cut.

This year, there’s about $1 billion allocated to fight wildfires. It’s not likely to be enough. Last year, the Forest Service took about $500 million from other projects and spent it on wildfires, according to The Associated Press.

It’s hard to guess or model how bad a wildfire season might be. But a mistake is only magnified when it means money for fire prevention projects is cut.

Democratic Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley have backed one solution. Wyden’s bill would allow firefighting agencies to turn to money designated for natural disasters when fighting large “megafires” instead of dipping into other forest management money. The assertion is the bill could free hundreds of millions of dollars for projects to reduce wildfire danger. 

There’s a proposal in the Senate from Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. It goes further. It has an outright ban on firefighting agencies taking money from nonwildfire accounts. It would allow a similar sort of access to disaster funding, but it would require that an amount equal to 50 percent of fire suppression costs be spent on fire prevention.

The McCain proposal is not getting a lot of support. It dictates spending, rather than giving Congress discretion and flexibility —among other things. If anything is going to pass, it is more likely to be along the lines of Wyden’s bill.

Congress should support Wyden’s bill, but the shriller notion behind McCain’s bill was correct. The federal government is not doing enough to prevent wildfire.

— Wescom Wire Service (Bend Bulletin)

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