Idaho lawmakers fight for wildfire funding

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) -- Senator Mike Crapo is backing a bill in Washington that would allow the government to declare wildfires natural disasters; allowing more money to be poured into fighting them. The bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would also allow for more funding to go toward fire prevention and restoration.

Sen. Crapo said wild land fire crews have been running out of money to fight fires for the past decade, and when the funds dry up, agencies are forced to dig for money elsewhere.

"The funding for the firefighter expenses is put into the budgets of the forest service and BLM," said Senator Crapo. "But there's never enough funding in it and therefore, the agencies run out and in the middle of the forest season they have to rob the rest of their budgets, their management budgets, in order to fight the fires."

When crews take money from their management budget, they have no money during the off-season to perform restoration to the land and help prevent fires from coming back in the future.

"It's just kind of a vicious circle," Senator Crapo said.

In a written response from a spokesman for the USDA regarding the wildfire bill, the company agrees with Senator Crapo, saying something needs to be done.

"In many recent years, because of severe fire seasons, the Forest Service has run through its fire suppression budget and has had to 'borrow' funds from other budget areas, most notably funds used to restore forest health," said Robert Bonnie, a spokesman for the USDA. "This has affected USDA's ability to manage forests in a way that could reduce the incidence of wildfires in the future."

Adding to the problem over the past decade is the increased amount of homes being built in open range and forested areas. A spokeswomen for the National Interagency Fire Center said when a fire burns on barren, wild land they use very few resources to control it.

"When you have a fire out in the wilderness, it's actually doing what it's supposed to be doing," said Tina Boehle, a spokeswoman for the NIFC. "It's clearing brush and stuff like that; it's cleaning up the ecosystem."

But when there are houses in a wildfires path, many more resources are needed, and that means more money.

"Homes are also fuel for fires and so you're putting firefighters in an unsafe situation when there is a home on fire and the wild land firefighters are not necessarily equipped to manage structural fires," said Boehle.

Senator Mike Crapo said the bill is just getting its legs in Washington, however President Obama announced Monday that he already plans to create a special disaster fund to fight massive wildfires. The bill will go through the Senate, while Rep. Simpson is backing a second, twin bill that will go through the House. Senator Crapo said he is already seeing support for the proposal.