Wildfires put the heat on Congress to fund fire suppression

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Courtesy of U.S. Dept. of Agriculture

With catastrophic wildfires blazing across the nation, Congress is pressured to address the runaway growth of fire suppression at the cost of other critical programs.

“This year, the United States Forest Service received $1.011 billion for wildfire suppression and as of August 10, we had spent $671 million,” says Jennifer Jones, public affairs specialist from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Washington Office says. “Given the fire activity we are currently experiencing and with weather and fuel conditions conducive to ignitions and wildfire spread to continue for the next several weeks, it won’t be surprising if we run out of money.”

The USFS budgets for wildfire suppression as a routine expense each year, but as climate change and new development in the wildland-urban interface raise the costs, the agency is asking to fund catastrophic wildfires as natural disasters that would tap emergency budgets.

Currently, the USFS is spending more than 50 percent of its overall budget to suppress the nation’s wildfires. A report released Aug. 5 estimates that within a decade, the agency will spend more than two-thirds of its budget to battle increasing fires. Once the agency uses its allotment for fire suppression, it must transfer funds internally, away from other mission-critical programs that can help prevent fires in the first place, such as forest restoration and fire risk-reduction. No other natural disasters are funded this way.

Current fire conditions add urgency to the call to action for wildfire management reform. For the fifth time in 10 years, the National Multi-Agency Coordination Group (representatives from several federal agencies) raised the National Fire Preparedness Level to 5, the maximum. This year, 39,254 wildfires have burned nearly 6.4 million acres in the United States and that number is increasing.

Plus, the size and intensity of these fires have increased by 38 percent over a 10 year average, while the number of fires has remained steady. Prior to 1995, there was less than one large catastrophic fire in the U.S. per year. In the period between 1995 and 2014, there was an average of 9.8 per year. Despite this increase, there is a 17.5 percent drop in firefighting personnel as budget processes are increasingly insufficient.

“The worst 1 percent of fires are consuming 30 percent of the assets and we expect that to increase steadily. Climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than a decade ago,” Jones says. ”We need more resources to accommodate these severe, long duration fires so we can manage fire, not react to them.”

With 79 large fires currently burning across 13 states, the severity of the problem is also a call to action.

“It’s unfortunate that it sometimes takes a catastrophe at home to get Congress to act, but it’s impossible to see our friends and neighbors struggling because of a natural disaster and not want to do everything we can to help,” writes U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Boulder) in an email to Boulder Weekly. “There are very real steps Congress can take to reduce wildfire damage, prevent future wildfires, and fix funding shortfalls in wildfire response, and when members of Congress know that there are homes and lives in their districts that can be saved if we act, that is a huge motivation to take action.”

Rep. Polis is a co-sponsor of one such bill, The Wildfire Prevention Act of 2015. Inspired by post-fire communities in Colorado, the bill aims to provide resources to reduce risk against future fires as well as post-fire related natural disasters such as flooding or watershed damage.

A second bill, The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2015 presents an alternative approach to increasing fire suppression funds. Proposed as an amendment to the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, it provides for adjustments to dis cretionary spending to fund catastrophic wildfire suppression at 70 percent of its 10-year average. With the recent backing of the USFS, the bill is quickly gaining support with 127 co-sponsors, including Rep. Polis.

In the heat of the current fires in Washington state, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) recently announced her intention to introduce another bill, the Wildfire Management Act of 2015 this fall. The bill extends beyond budget fixes to include six categories of reform including funding deficiency, fire mitigation, strategic management of fire as an essential part of Western ecosystems, strategic agency coordination, prioritization of federal spending and post fire response.

“I’m very pleased that Senator Cantwell is introducing her bill because it’s important that this issue get the attention it merits from both chambers of Congress. …” Polis writes. “There’s no single correct strategy to address this problem, so I’m hopeful that having several thoughtful, bipartisan proposals in both the House and Senate will give us the momentum we need to pass a comprehensive solution.”

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