Western senators fight to change how wildfires are funded

What the new legislation could mean.

The death toll in the California wildfires has now risen to 29. Nearly 500 are still missing in Sonoma County alone. Despite non-stop efforts by 8,000 firefighters and more than 100 planes and helicopters, the number of fires burning in the Golden State grew to 22 over Wednesday night.

While firefighters continue to fight the flames, a group of western senators, including Idaho Republicans Jim Risch and Mike Crapo, are fighting for how fires are funded in Washington, D.C.

Currently, states can receive federal hazard mitigation funding, which helps lessen the effects of a future disaster, only if the president issues a major disaster declaration. However, unlike hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes, one issue facing the West is that wildfires rarely trigger that type of declaration.

“Even some of those bigger fires don't really reach that magnitude of being declared a federal disaster, and so you don't have as much funding available to some of the local communities,” Jonathan Oppenheimer with the Idaho Conservation League said.

This year’s firefighting costs around the country have exceeded $2 billion, making it the most expensive firefighting year in history.

Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch are co-sponsoring a bill with many other western senators that would treat wildfires in the same manner as other natural disasters, like hurricanes, floods or tornadoes.

“They have been using the actual budgeted money for the agencies, Forest Service, BLM, and other agencies, to do this firefighting, and what this would do would take this out of their budget and transfer it to emergency funding just like a hurricane, or a tornado or an earthquake,” Risch said.

Fire-prone communities could also apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grants to undertake firewise projects, like thinning forests, to help reduce hazardous fuels in at-risk areas.

“It would be a two-pronged approach. Not only could they apply for federal funds for that, the Forest Service themselves could make a plan for treating the most critical areas first. So it's a two-pronged attack,” Risch said. “It is aimed at community protection.”

The legislation would also provide federal assistance to local governments across the country dealing with the aftermath of a catastrophic fire.

“This funding would actually assist in the rehabilitative efforts that are necessary after a fire,” Risch said.

The Trump administration is well aware of this issue and has requested Congress, as part of the next emergency package, to include emergency spending for firefighting costs in excess of half a billion dollars.

The administration saying a long-term solution must be passed by Congress to address the issue of fire borrowing.

© 2017 KTVB-TV


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