Unlike other natural disasters, such as hurricanes, flooding and tornadoes, the fight against wildfires that now seem ever-present along the West Coast has been largely overlooked at the national level.
However, with the passage of an Omnibus spending package in March, wildfire outbreaks will now have access to the same Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds that are used to offset the costs of wildfire damage.
“Why are other natural disasters allowed to access that budget and not the fire guys? The answer is Paul Ryan. He would not allow that to happen and that was an act of discrimination against the West. The good news is the West ganged up on him and said we should have access,” Rep. Kurt Schrader said.
In addition to providing access to FEMA funds, new policies will end “fire borrowing.” Fire borrowing is the name given to the longstanding practice of borrowing from the Forest Service’s wildfire prevention funds to pay for suppression once a fire breaks out. The result was funds to do the work of prevention were not available during the low-risk seasons.
While it’s good news for the communities affected by wildfires, Schrader said the work needed to continue “putting people back to work in the woods with a thoughtful, congressional approach. Not clear cutting, let’s thin and do some prescribed burning.”
As the West Coast can begin to breathe a sigh of relief as the fire season wanes, communities in North and South are still waiting to begin recovery from Hurricane Florence, not to mention hurricane-related recoveries still being executed in Puerto Rico and Houston, Texas. Asked what could be done to better prepare communities across the country from mass devastation, Schrader said it begins with recalculating the FEMA budget.
“The problem we’ve got is that the budget is based on intensity and frequency calculated in the 1980s. With climate change, FEMA has documented that the storms are occurring more often and they are much more violent. We have not adjusted the base FEMA budget because Republicans don’t want to deal with the base reality of what stuff costs,” he said.
He added that reform of federal flood insurance programs – and thought into how and where people are allowed to build – needs to begin.
“We shouldn’t allow new homes to be built in floodways or floodplains or on the beach, that’s ridiculous. We also have to figure out a flood insurance program that doesn’t bankrupt a retired couple living in Tillamook,” he said. “The Republicans want to privatize the thing and they found out a lot of their constituents don’t like that idea because the rates would go through the roof. Government can defray some of the costs as long as people take responsibility for other things.”