Flathead Beacon: Tester, Daines Look for Bipartisan Support for Firefighting Bill

WEST GLACIER – Although Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines reside on opposite sides of the aisle, both agree something must be done to rein in the skyrocketing cost of suppressing wildfires.

On Aug. 23, Montana’s senators were in West Glacier for a briefing on the Sheep Fire, which has burned more than 500 acres on the southern edge of Glacier National Park and threatens the community of Essex. The visit came just weeks after they joined other western senators in sponsoring legislation that would reform how the U.S. Forest Service funds the battle against wildfires.

A new report from USFS states that more than half of the agency’s annual budget will be engulfed by firefighting efforts this year, compared to just 16 percent of the budget in 1995. In 2014, the agency spent $1.1 billion fighting wildfires.  It also predicts that in 10 years, two out of every three dollars the agency gets will be spent on wildfires if the funding mechanism is not changed. At the current rate, fire suppression costs are expected to consume $1.8 billion every year by 2025.

“(The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act) bill will bring firefighting funding efforts into the 21st Century,” Tester said. “This bill will help us treat fires like the natural disasters that they are, just like earthquakes or hurricanes.”

Tester and Daines said the bill would free up money to help better manage the nation’s forests in hopes of preventing more catastrophic fires in the future. It would also end the practice of borrowing money from other programs to fight fires by taking up to 30 percent of fire suppression costs out of the USFS budget.

Tester said it was critical that the bill pass as rising temperatures create longer wildfire seasons. According to the USFS budget report, climate change has resulted in wildfire seasons that are now 78 days longer than they were in the 1970s.

A look at fires in Northwest Montana shows just how expensive the incidents can become. As of Aug. 23, the Thompson-Divide Complex fire (which includes the Sheep Fire near Essex) has cost more than $2.7 million. The Reynolds Creek Fire on the east side of Glacier National Park racked up a bill three times that amount in just a few weeks.

Despite the need, there is still no guarantee the bill will pass and, even if it does, it will have little impact on this year’s firefighting costs because the Senate is in recess until September. Tester and Daines said the bill would need more bipartisan support to achieve the 60 votes needed to pass. Daines said it’s up to senators like him and Tester to convince their colleagues in other parts of the country to support the legislation.

“These fires in the Northwest are making national news and hopefully (the importance of this bill) sinks in with senators on the other side of the country,” Daines said.