Harvey Aid Bill Also Aims to Ease Financial Pressure for Agencies Fighting Wildfires

A helicopter with a water bucket flies through dense smoke near Stevenson, Wash., Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017, as it works to battle the Eagle Creek wildfire on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge.

A helicopter with a water bucket flies through dense smoke near Stevenson, Wash., Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017, as it works to battle the Eagle Creek wildfire on the Oregon side of the Columbia River Gorge. AP Photo/ Randy L. Rasmussen

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Firefighting costs are expected to exceed budgeted amounts by about $300 million this year.

WASHINGTON — Federal agencies battling wildfires gained leeway on Friday to more quickly replenish money they borrow to cover the cost of suppressing the blazes.

Language making this possible is included in a bill President Trump signed providing roughly $15 billion in aid for areas damaged by Hurricane Harvey. The legislation also temporarily suspends the nation’s borrowing limit and funds the government into December.

A bipartisan group of 12 senators from western states sent a letter this week to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, urging that the wildfire provisions be included in the bill with the hurricane recovery funding.

“Please do not forget about wildfires—the natural disaster currently raging through the West,” the lawmakers wrote.

Wildfires have so far scorched about eight million acres across the U.S. this year. That total exceeds the average number of acres burned annually during the prior decade, which is 5,558,384. As of Saturday, there were 67 large, active fires, affecting roughly 1.6 million acres.

Currently, about 25,000 personnel are involved in firefighting efforts. The senators noted in their letter that there had been six wildland firefighting deaths this year.

The Eagle Creek Fire on Saturday continued to burn areas in the scenic Columbia River Gorge, on the border of Oregon and Washington. That fire had destroyed at least four structures as of Friday and led to a closure on Interstate 84, due in part to about 2,000 now-hazardous trees along the roadway. The fire had spread to about 33,000 acres and was just 7 percent contained.

A map of the Eagle Creek Fire, in Oregon, as of Sept. 7. (InciWeb)

Thick smoke from the blazes burning throughout the West and in Canada have led to poor air quality in cities, including Portland, Oregon and Seattle, with ash falling at times.

The issue addressed in the bill passed this week is known as “fire borrowing.”

When a federal agency depletes the money it is allotted for fighting fires, it’s forced to take from other accounts to pay for fire suppression. In some, but not all instances, this might mean using money that would have otherwise gone toward wildfire prevention work, like thinning forests.

Appropriations legislation approved in May for the current fiscal year provided $4.2 billion for wildland firefighting and prevention programs, according to a summary of the bill.

Estimates for this year indicate that firefighting costs will exceed budgeted amounts by about $300 million. Fire borrowing will allow for this shortfall to be covered.

A nighttime back-burn that was part of efforts to fight the Eagle Creek Fire, near Interstate 84, west of Cascade Locks, in Oregon. (InciWeb)

What the legislative tweak included in the Harvey aid bill will do is allow for the money that agencies borrow from other programs to cover the funding gap to be replenished promptly when the new fiscal year begins in October. The goal is to ensure adequate money remains available for other operations, including wildfire prevention.

A Senate staffer familiar with wildfire funding issues said Friday that there’s no indication he knew of that the Interior Department would have to engage in fire borrowing this year and that the U.S. Forest Service, within the Department of Agriculture, is the main agency that would be affected by the language in the bill.

“We’re giving them access to fully repay those accounts that they raided,” the staffer said. He added: “On Oct. 1, they have all that money back.”

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

NEXT STORY: This Wildfire Season Underscores the Importance of Federal Forest Payments