Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria have caused total and unprecedented devastation in parts of Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the rest of the Caribbean. As Chairman of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, I held a hearing last week to discuss the devastation this region has experienced and to hear from the administration on how they are helping small businesses and individuals recover. The Small Business Administration, which serves as one of the federal government’s premier disaster agencies, told us many of these communities and businesses will face years of rebuilding before their lives return to normal.
While we do not have hurricanes in the West, Idahoans can understand and sympathize with the victims of these catastrophic events because we experience similarly catastrophic wildfires.
Each year, wildfires tear through states like Idaho and burn through Western forests, ecosystems, homes and businesses. The resulting disruption is untold. Idahoans are forced to uproot from their homes and find temporary living accommodations. Many with asthma and COPD must stay inside or leave the region altogether as the smoke degrades air quality to hazardous levels, sometimes for weeks. Small business owners — especially those who rely on the land like loggers, outfitters and guides — have to abandon shop, which results in significant economic losses. Major roadways are closed for weeks at a time causing significantly decreased traffic into the state, and tourism dollars are lost. Members of the small, rural communities across Idaho rely on the summer months to earn enough income to sustain their families during the cold winters. Wildfires completely interrupt our state’s economy and our residents’ daily lives.
More than 8 million acres have burned across the country this year alone — a 47-percent increase from the 10-year average of 5.8 million acres. The emergency preparedness levels for fire are at the highest point in five years.
Wildfires have increased not only in intensity, but in expense. Senator Crapo and I attended a briefing at the Forest Service headquarters in D.C. last week, and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue shared with us that spending is at an all-time record of more than $2 billion to pay to fight this year’s wildfires.
The major difference between catastrophic hurricanes and wildfires is that wildfires are at least partially preventable and almost fully manageable. Western senators agree we must address the way we manage forests to prevent this devastation in the first place.
I am a sponsor of Senators Mike Crapo’s (R-ID) and Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) bipartisan bill, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which would fund wildfires as natural disasters — like a hurricane, tornado or earthquake. It would end “fire borrowing,” which is spending money from other areas of the federal budget to pay for firefighting. Ending fire borrowing would allow agencies to take steps ahead of fire season to better prevent them from happening.
The basic method for funding wildfires MUST be corrected. In 1995, 16 percent of the forest service budget was spent on fighting fires. So far this year, 56 percent of their budget has already been spent fighting fires. As a result of that, the forest service is not able to do the kind of preventative work they need to do. And spending will likely go up in future years if we don’t act. When we spend that much on firefighting, we are setting ourselves up for failure by raiding budgets for fuels reduction and timber sales, habitat restoration, roads and trails maintenance; all things that keep our forests usable, healthy and less susceptible to catastrophic wildfire.
We need every resource available to prevent and combat the devastation caused by wildfires. One way or another, I am committed to getting this done.
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Sen. Jim Risch is an Idaho Republican.