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Will wine country disaster push Congress to fix fire budget?

Emily Cadei, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in Political News

WASHINGTON -- 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 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, said 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 said. "It's not meant to be that way."

In September, the federal government announced its firefighting costs had 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," said 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 Donald 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, David Valadao and Doug LaMalfa (who is sponsoring both bills). California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, 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 email.

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 such as McCarthy, meanwhile, will make it hard to advance the Senate version there.

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