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Will wine country disaster push Congress to fix fire budget?

Northern California scorched as wildfires rage on

Massive wildfires continue to sweep through Northern California's wine region, forcing emergency evacuations and destroying more than 2,000 buildings. The fires began Sunday evening, though the initial cause is under investigation.
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Massive wildfires continue to sweep through Northern California's wine region, forcing emergency evacuations and destroying more than 2,000 buildings. The fires began Sunday evening, though the initial cause is under investigation.

It’s a rare point of bipartisan agreement in divided Washington: The federal system for funding firefighting is broken, and that’s hurting our ability to prevent fires from breaking out in the first place.

But lawmakers are at a loggerheads over how to fix the problem, a split that breaks down on largely regional, rather than partisan, grounds. Some in the House and Senate, however, now hope that national coverage of Northern California’s devastating fires could finally spur a congressional compromise, a bit of a silver lining emerging out of all the destruction.

At the root of the problem is the fact that forest fires are not treated like other natural disasters. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can tap emergency funds for hurricane or tornado response, the U.S. Forest Service has to raid its other program budgets – including fire prevention – if it runs out of firefighting funds. That’s become increasingly common in recent years, as fires have grown more intense and destructive.

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho notes that the Forest Service spent over half of its budget last year on firefighting, compared to 16 percent in 1995. In effect, the Forest Service has been transformed from a “management agency to a firefighting agency,” Risch says. “It’s not meant to be that way.” In September, the federal government announced its firefighting costs have already surpassed $2 billion, well over the $1.7 billion in the Forest Services’ budget. That makes this the most expensive fire season ever – and that’s before the fires broke out in California.

Risch, along with California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and eight other Western state senators, is a co-sponsor of the “Wildfire Disaster Funding Act,” which would allow the Forest Service to tap emergency funds for firefighting while protecting money for federal fire prevention work – like clearing brush and dead trees – that could help prevent future fires.

“Those of us who live out West believe that these are catastrophes, natural catastrophes, just as much as a hurricane, a tornado or an earthquake,” says Risch. “And as such, there should be FEMA emergency spending that is used for this.”

Feinstein and fellow California Sen. Kamala Harris also sent a letter to President Trump Tuesday urging him to support the budget fix, as well as other federal aid for those affected in the state. Eighteen members of the California delegation are co-sponsoring a House version of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act.

But there is a competing bill, the “Resilient Federal Forests Act,” that is moving in the House. It would make the firefighting budget fix, but also add some controversial changes to forest management programs and environmental laws. The legislation is backed primarily by farm state lawmakers, although it is also co-sponsored by California Republican Reps. Tom McClintock of Elk Grove, David Valadao of Hanford and Doug LaMalfa of Oroville (who is sponsoring both bills). California Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, the influential House majority leader, is on board, as well. McCarthy “is working with his House and Senate colleagues to pass legislation ... that fixes the budgeting problems and includes reforms to forest management to help prevent these types of fires (in California) in the future,” his spokesman, Matt Sparks, said via e-mail.

Each house passed a version of its approach as part of a 2015 spending bill, but neither made it into law due to opposition in the other chamber. And both face similar problems this year. The House proposal is anathema to many Democrats and environmentalists, who complain it would violate the National Environmental Policy Act as well as the Endangered Species Act, among other things. So it will struggle to get the necessary 60 votes to avoid a filibuster in the Senate. Opposition from House leaders like McCarthy, meanwhile, will make it hard to advance the Senate version there.

The firefighting crisis, however, is only intensifying.

Advocates for the Senate bill say the inability to pay for adequate prevention work – like clearing brush and dead trees – make fires increasingly severe.

The fires raging in California are all on state or private land, and thus not directly affected by the gap in federal prevention funds. But Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said Wednesday that the federal budget dysfunction indirectly affects the state’s ability to combat the blazes.

“The challenge is that we really depend on the federal firefighting resources to come in and help us,” Pimlott said at a press conference in Sacramento, noting the U.S. Forest Service is providing 154 of the 170 fire engines coming to California to fight the fires. “If they don’t have adequate funding to ensure their wildland fire program is fully supported, we don’t have the ability to reach out to them to get mutual aid and assistance at the same capacity.”

The catastrophic nature of California’s fires, combined with their timing, has some hoping Congress will be motivated to work out a solution. “I hope so,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., replied when asked if the fires bring more urgency to the issue.

The fires are being discussed in the same breath as the hurricanes that belted Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, and advocates hope that could help shift perceptions about wildfires.

Congress is voting on a natural disaster spending bill this week in response to the hurricanes and fires, just one of what are expected to be several pieces of aid legislation to help the affected areas recover. Backers of a firefighting budget fix would like to attach the measure either to one of those bills, or the legislation needed to fund the entire government that’s due in December. Costa is among those seeking a compromise between the two sides of the firefighting fight.

“We’re trying,” he said.

Lesley Clark of the McClatchy Washington Bureau and Alexei Koseff of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

Emily Cadei: 202-383-6153, @emilycadei

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