Fires continue to rage through tinder-dry wildlands in Oregon, Washington and California. Nearly a million acres have burned so far, destroying more than 200 homes.
With the nation’s eyes turned toward the Northwest, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden and the Obama administration have taken the opportunity to renew their efforts to change how the federal government pays to fight and prevent wildfires.
In a conference call from Washington, D.C., Wyden said fire season in the West is changing, and fast.
"I think it’s very clear that these fires are getting bigger, they’re getting hotter and they’re getting more damaging," he said.
That means it costs more to fight those fires each year. The Department of the Interior expects to spend close to $1.8 billion this year alone, about $500 million more than it budgeted. Firefighting money has come up short in seven of the past dozen years.
When that happens, Wyden said, "The bureaucracy raids the prevention program in order to secure money to fight the fires, and of course the problem gets worse."
The Oregon Democrat is talking about programs that reduce wildfire threat by thinning overgrown forests, or that teach people how to make their homes less vulnerable to fire.
Jim Douglas, who heads the Interior Department’s Office of Wildland Fire, said this "borrow from Peter to pay Paul" routine starves programs that could make big, destructive fires less likely in the first place.
"The more we have to budget for suppression activities, the less money we have for our critical activities of fire preparedness, fuels treatment, forest management," Douglas said.
Douglas said 99 percent of fires eat up 70 percent of the fire-fighting budget. "So that last 1 percent of our fire workload takes about 30 percent of our budget dollars."
In his most recent budget, President Barack Obama has proposed treating that 1 percent –- the really big, costly fires –- like hurricanes, tornadoes or floods. They would be paid for out of the fund for large natural disasters. That way, those catastrophic wildfires won’t drain the budget for fire prevention.
Wyden -– joined by Idaho Republican Mike Crapo –- is floating a Senate bill that would do the same thing. A House version of the bill is sponsored by Idaho Republican Mike Simpson, with Oregon co-sponsors Democrat Peter Defazio and Republican Greg Walden.
But this rare bipartisan effort has stalled, facing opposition from budget hawks and others with bones to pick with the Obama administration’s forest policy. Among the prime opponents is Arizona Senator John McCain.
In a recent hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Republican McCain blamed overgrown forests for the increasing intensity and cost of wildfires.
"I watch my home state of Arizona burn every summer," he said. "I’m frustrated beyond words with the slow pace of forest thinning projects across the West."
McCain isn’t buying the argument that catastrophic wildfires are just another natural disaster.
"Wildfires deserve some level of budget flexibility," he said. "But unlike hurricanes and earthquakes, the federal government can take action to reduce wildfire severity through forest thinning."
McCain has countered Wyden’s bill with one of his own. It would allow some limited access to disaster funds, linked to spending to reduce forest fuels.
This makes some Democrats and environmentalists nervous. They fear McCain’s enthusiasm for forest thinning is a cover for renewed large-scale commercial logging on federal lands.
There’s general agreement that many forests are overgrown, though some blame decades of fire suppression, while others point to environmental logging restrictions.