Three states fighting wildfires declare emergencies

Graphic: U.S. Forest Service
Graphic: U.S. Forest Service

Three West Coast states are calling in extra firefighting forces to battle about 30 major wildfires raging across their hot, dry states as the peak of fire season creeps closer.

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) declared a state of emergency over the weekend as two wildfires burning in Northern California forced evacuations of three small towns in Shasta County. Those fires have burned about 100 square miles so far.

More than a dozen significant fires are burning throughout California in 11 counties. Earlier this year, Brown had declared a drought emergency, which officials worried would exacerbate what was already expected to be a busy fire season.

Brown said California would ask for help from neighboring states. He ordered state agencies to throw more resources at the fires and mobilized the National Guard to help, too. Cal Fire, the primary agency responsible for fighting blazes around the state, partners with National Guard and U.S. military units to help battle fires that grow out of control.

Washington and Oregon have been under declared fire emergencies since last month. Fires have ripped through the high desert east of the Cascade Mountains for a month and a half in Oregon, where the U.S. Forest Service says a dozen significant fires are burning today. And Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) declared fire emergencies in counties east of the Cascades last month, too.

The following week, President Obama declared an emergency in two Central Washington counties and one Native American reservation. The declaration allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate disaster relief efforts.

The Forest Service rates fires based on severity, threat to human settlement and other factors to assign priority levels in order to marshall limited resources. In the three Pacific Coast states, 12 priority-one fires are burning.

Three fires are burning in Idaho, though state officials have not declared an emergency. Another lower-priority fire is burning in Georgia.

Western officials have been concerned that the Forest Service and other fire-fighting agencies will not have the money to deal with a major wildfire season. The White House last month requested hundreds of millions of dollars in supplemental funding to pay for wildfire expenses, though when Congress left for August recess last week, neither chamber had appropriated the money.

Congress is also working on changing the way the federal government accounts for money spent funding wildfires. The proposed changes, backed by bipartisan groups in the House and Senate, would treat wildfire funding the same as money earmarked to recover from any other disaster, like an earthquake or a hurricane. Presently, Congress must appropriate money to fight the fires, and pass more funding retroactively when the government inevitably goes over its budget.

The Obama administration released a video Tuesday aimed at clarifying the link between climate change and record number of wildfires in the past few years. (YouTube: The White House)
Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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