Sep 27, 2017
USDA briefs senators on wildfires, costs

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue hosted U.S. Senators Sept. 26 at the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) for a 2017 fire briefing to hear about this year’s efforts to contain wildfires out west as well as the way the USFS is funded.

In attendance were senators Mike Crapo (R-ID), Steve Daines (R-MT), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Jim Risch (R-ID) and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

Currently, the agency has to borrow money from prevention programs to combat ongoing wildfires, according to a release from the USDA. Secretary Perdue said Congress should treat major fires the same as other disasters and that those fires should be covered by emergency funds so prevention programs are not raided for funds to fight fires.

Northwest fires have been a concern for specialty crop growers. In 2015, Chelan Fruit Cooperative, a large fruit co-op in Northcentral Washington burned, local media reported.

Some winemakers in the Pacific Northwest this season also wildfire smoke in the vineyards tainting the taste of winegrapes, National Public Radio reported.

“This has been a tremendous fire season,” Perdue said. “As wildfire costs exceed $2 billion, I appreciate those in Congress who recognize this funding issue and are working to make a permanent fix that allows us to manage our forests preemptively. While we can’t stop these wildfires, we know we can be prepared in a much better way.”

“We’re not going to stop all the fires, but I do believe we can stop a lot of these 100,000 acres (fires) that we’re seeing here,” he said.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service (FS) National Director of Fire and Aviation Management Shawna Legarza briefs Sonny Perdue and U.S. Senators in the USDA Forest Service Headquarters, on Sept 26, 2017. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

Recently, wildland fire suppression costs for the fiscal year exceeded $2 billion, making it the most expensive year on record. This summer, wildfires have ravaged states in the west, Pacific Northwest, and Northern Rockies regions of the United States.

The fire suppression portion of the Forest Service budget is funded at a rolling ten-year average of appropriations, while the overall Forest Service budget has remained relatively flat. Because the fire seasons are longer and conditions are worse, the ten-year rolling fire suppression budget average keeps rising, consuming a greater percentage of the total Forest Service budget each year.

Perdue has drafted a proposal to ensure both fire suppression and prevention efforts receive the proper funding they need, according to the USDA.  Last week, Secretary Perdue urged State Foresters to call on Congress to how large firefighting operations are funded.

Photo, above: U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is joined by U.S. Senators Mike Crapo (R-ID), Steve Daines (R-MT), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Jim Risch (R-ID), Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) for a 2017 fire briefing, in the USDA Forest Service (FS) Headquarters, Yates Building Fire Desk, on Sept 26, 2017. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

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