WASHINGTON -- Congress must find a better way to pay to fight wildfires because rising costs are limiting the government's ability to do preventive work before fire season, a bipartisan group of senators said Tuesday.
But Democrats and Republicans disagreed on the solution.
Democrats, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., backed a bill introduced by Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and Idaho Republican Mike Crapo that would make wildfires eligible for assistance from a special disaster relief fund just like hurricanes, earthquakes and other disasters.
That legislative change, which requires congressional approval, would free the U.S. Forest Service and the Interior Department from having to raid other parts of their budgets year after year, supporters say. They add that the shuffling of funds -- called "fire borrowing" -- shortchanges critical fire-prevention work like removing excess and dead vegetation that act as fuel for the blazes.
"We've got to change our budgeting process for wildfires as soon as we can," Feinstein testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "We never budget enough . . . so clearly the way we budget needs reworking."
California is likely to see more wildfires than any other state this year, and the state's long-running drought intensifies the fire risk, Feinstein said. Since January, California has experienced almost 3,200 wildfires that have burned about 28,000 acres, she said.
Some GOP senators backed a bill introduced by Arizona Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake and Wyoming Republican John Barrasso. Their bill would require the Obama administration to focus on thinning 7.5 million acres of federal land and give the timber industry a greater role in the process.
"I've watched my home state of Arizona burn every summer," McCain testified. "I am frustrated with the slow pace of progress in forest-thinning projects."
About 2.4 million acres of forest in Arizona needs to be thinned, but only 40,000 acres have had such work done, McCain said.
Wildfires are bigger and costlier to suppress -- especially out West -- because of hotter, drier weather, increasing development along the edges of the wilderness and the growing buildup of diseased and dying trees, dense undergrowth and piled up dead leaves and branches.
Last week, President Barack Obama asked Congress for $615 million in emergency funds for wildfire suppression this year and asked lawmakers to make the catastrophic 1 percent of wildfires eligible for disaster-fund money. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers that fund, said it has an unspent balance of $9 billion.
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell testified that the government has the money to pay to combat about 99 percent of the wildfires, but needs a stable funding source to pay for the biggest blazes because they consume 30 percent of his agency's budget.
The Forest Service didn't ask Congress for the disaster designation until now because "there was always a perception that we can put them out if we just had more resources," Tidwell said after the hearing.
But it's clear that annual appropriations won't be enough to meet all the costs of suppressing wildfires, which is why the administration is turning to Congress for help, he said.
Congress is in the early stages of finding a solution to the wildfire funding problems. It was unclear Tuesday whether the Democratic or Republican bills would gain favor or if they'd be combined to form one proposal.
In the House, Republican leaders haven't scheduled a vote on a bipartisan bill introduced by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, that's similar to the Wyden-Crapo bill in the Senate. Introduced in February, it has 108 cosponsors, about half of them Republicans. In an unusual move, House Democrats, led by Oregon Rep. Pete DeFazio, have begun an effort to collect at least 218 signatures from their colleagues to go around House leaders and bring the measure to the floor for a vote.