Firefighting Money Burns Up as Fast as Western Forests
The Register-Guard (September 10, 2017)

Public officials have thrown more than 7,000 firefighters, 400 fire engines and other pieces of ground equipment, and about 40 helicopters into the fray against the forest fires besieging Western Oregon.

Federal agencies alone have spent more than $200 million thus far combating the string of blazes from the Columbia River Gorge to Brookings.

Yet, many of the fires still burn strong, chewing through forests — the vast majority federally owned — and polluting the air with smoke.

Total land burned so far in the calamitous 2017 fire season in Western Oregon has topped 400,000 acres.

And Oregon isn’t the only place forests are ablaze. California, Idaho and other Western states are suffering big forest fires, too.

One measure of the frenzy: The U.S. Forest Service has a budget this year of $1.89 billion for firefighting, said Jennifer Jones, spokeswoman at the Boise-based National Interagency Fire Center. So far it has spent about $1.75 billion, leaving just $140 million in the kitty, a paltry sum when it comes to fighting fires in remote, heavily forested mountain terrain.

Wildfire has the attention of Oregonians from Eugene to Portland to the southern Oregon Coast, with blankets of acrid smoke covering cities and ash falling from the sky.

The desperate fire season raises a host of questions: Do agencies have enough money to fight the bigger fires that may be new normal? With more money, could agencies deploy more crews and equipment — especially aircraft — faster against the fires and put them out sooner? Or would federal money be better spent on building roads into remote forests and thinning the dense stands to make them more fire resistant?

Oregon’s Congressional delegation worries that with firefighting budgets close to exhausted, the federal government will raid its other forest-­related accounts.

“What we’ve got to do now is make sure that our firefighting professionals have the dollars they need to put the fires out,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said between visits Friday to wildfires in Oregon. Senators last week voted to include emergency firefighting money in disaster relief for Hurricane Harvey in response to efforts by Wyden and his fellow Oregon Democrat, Sen. Jeff Merkley. The exact amount has yet to be determined.

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