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Paying to fight forest fires with forest-health funds is a disaster

By Editorial Board
The Seattle Times
Congress needs to treat forest fires as natural disasters and use emergency funds to fight them, not drain money from forest management.

 

After two record-setting wildfire seasons, and with Washington forests already burning, state leaders are again pressing for basic changes in how the expense of these natural disasters is covered.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and state Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark sent a letter to congressional leaders asking for smart revisions in how the budget for the U.S. Forest Service works.

To cover the costs of fighting devastating wildfires across the West, the Forest Service has to raid funds set aside to keep forests healthy and reduce fire danger.

As Inslee and Goldmark point out in their May 19 letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, money is taken from accounts “intended to improve forest health and prevent the very sorts of conditions that can exacerbate fires.” The term of art is “fire borrowing.”

Wildfire suppression consumed 60 percent of the Forest Service budget in the federal fiscal year 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Washington has its own homegrown funding issues for state lands. But as state and federal forest lands are checkerboarded across the state, the failure of federal forest-health practices ignites disaster.

Inslee and Goldmark support a more direct way to deal with wildfires: Treat them in federal accounting the way hurricanes and floods are handled across the country.

They are all disasters that claim lives, destroy private property and put communities in jeopardy. Create the budget structures and cost thresholds used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and others.

This approach has bipartisan support among Washington’s congressional delegation.

Failure to maintain forest health with thinning, and disease and pest control creates fire hazards that can cost vastly more to extinguish. Raiding the forest-health funds to pay for putting out fires only compounds the budgetary madness.

Lawmakers in Olympia engage in the same shortsighted budgeting. They had to come up with $160 million to pay for 2015 firefighting costs. They only produced $6.7 million of the $24 million Goldmark asked for to prepare for another fire season.

Wildfires in 2015 consumed 1 million acres of forest land, along with 499 structures, 307 primary residences, 21 commercial structures and 171 outbuildings.

The disasters are as real as the destruction and loss of life generated by hurricanes and storms. Federal budgeting needs to catch up with regional realities.

As the weather gets hotter and forests get drier, the future is a vast expanse of tinder in front of us. This natural hazard and financial dilemma are not a one-off experience.

 

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Brier Dudley, Mark Higgins, Jonathan Martin, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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