Fire funding fix welcome, but delayed

It sounded like good news, and it is, but a long-awaited fix for wildfire funding won’t kick in for two more smoke seasons.

Oregon’s congressional delegation announced the long-awaited changes in how firefighting costs are covered with great fanfare last month. The omnibus spending bill that passed Congress after midnight March 23 includes a $23 billion emergency firefighting fund over 10 years. And the federal government will allocate $1.4 billion toward firefighting costs every year — equal to the 10-year average cost through 2015.

This should end the shell game known as “fire borrowing,” in which agencies that did not budget enough for firefighting divert money from other programs, often forest thinning, controlled burns and other projects designed to prevent future fires. Wildfires currently are not eligible for emergency funding that is routinely provided for floods and other natural disasters.

Now they will be, thanks to that $23 billion emergency fund — but it doesn’t kick in until 2020. In the meantime, the new budget does include some extra money for firefighting this year — $500 million — and a little more for forest management ($40 million). But the federal government spent more than $2.6 billion fighting fires last year alone. Not only that, but continuing that extra spending in 2019 depends on Congress passing another budget.

The new spending bill also includes the first extension of payments to Western Oregon timber counties since 2015. It’s not as much as before, and it doesn’t replace the stream of income from logging on the former Oregon & California Railroad lands, but it is better than nothing, and will be a welcome addition to the budgets of Jackson, Josephine and other formerly timber-dependent counties. Jackson County stands to get $3 million of the $56 million total.

The end of “fire borrowing” is a long-awaited injection of sanity into the funding process for federal forest agencies. Waiting two more years for protection against catastrophic firefighting costs is far from ideal, but the delay is still preferable to business as usual.

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