Fighting Western U.S. Wildfires Costing More than $1B, Agriculture Chief Says

September 1, 2015

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the federal government has spent more than $1 billion fighting this year’s deadly wildfires, which have scorched drought-stricken Western states.

Vilsack told a news conference in Portland, Ore., he supported a bill that would designate the very biggest blazes each year as national disasters.

The U.S. Agriculture Department, which oversees the Forest Service, is spending more than $150 million a week beating back several dozen blazes, he said at the conference last week.

Vilsack was joined by U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who is co-sponsor of a bipartisan bill that would assign national disaster status to the largest 1 to 2 percent of wildfires, freeing up emergency funding and preventing borrowing from fire prevention budgets.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

“My concern is that for much of the West, this could be the new norm,” Wyden said, adding that 11 western senators have also backed the measure and would make its passage a priority in September.

Active wildfires across the region have scorched almost 1.7 million acres (688,000 hectares) of land, roughly the size of Delaware, stretching resources thin and prompting a rare call for reinforcements from the U.S. military and as far afield as Australia.

Oregon and Washington state are experiencing the worst conflagrations, combining to account for nearly two-thirds of the total, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

On Thursday, U.S. lawmakers were urged to boost federal funding for local wildfire prevention efforts at a meeting in Seattle, with Washington state experiencing its largest cluster of deadly fires on record.

(Reporting by Curtis Skinner in San Francisco; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Eric Beech)

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