Above: Wolverine Fire in Washington, August 16, 2015. Photo by Kari Greer.
For several years the Obama administration and a few lawmakers have been been trying to convince Congress to change how wildfires are funded so that fire prevention, fuels management, and non-fire related programs in the federal agencies are not cannibalized to pay for emergency operations and the suppression of fires. There have been a number of these attempts but many have been hobbled by combining the proposals with unrelated provisions related to, for example, weakening or eliminating some environmental regulations related to timber harvesting.
The Los Angeles Times has published an op ed on the topic written by Senator Diane Feinstein and CAL FIRE Director Ken Pimlott. Below is an excerpt:
“…In the face of climate change and drought, longer and more severe fire seasons are to be expected. But last year the United States also suffered more catastrophic fires. These fires are natural disasters, as destructive as many hurricanes, tornadoes or floods. But that’s not how the federal government treats them, or pays for them.
If it had been massive storms that caused [the] extraordinary devastation [seen in the fires in 2015], and their costs outstripped the budget for disaster response, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies could access additional federal funding to pay for cleanup and recovery. In contrast, wildfire response remains subject to strict spending limits, regardless of a fire’s severity. Worse, outdated budget rules require the U.S. Forest Service to fight these fires by diverting funds from other parts of its budget — including fire prevention programs that remove dead trees and brush from forests.
This shortsighted practice means that as the Forest Service spends more on combating huge fires, it has less to spend on preventing them.
The agency must be allowed to pay for fighting extraordinary wildfires similarly to how FEMA and other agencies pay for disaster responses. The response to Hurricane Sandy did not come at the expense of routine maintenance on levees to prevent future floods. Likewise, the Forest Service’s firefighting costs should not come at the expense of routine brush clearance and maintenance that help prevent future wildfires.
Democrats and Republicans in both houses of Congress agree that this problem needs fixing. Last year’s Senate version of the appropriations bill to fund the Forest Service provided a simple solution: It would have allowed the agency to access a separate stream of federal funds, unconstrained by government-wide spending limits, to combat wildfires during an above-average fire season.
This concept has broad, bipartisan support. It has been included in other proposals from members of Congress who represent Western states and is supported by the Obama administration.
Despite that consensus, the fix was not included in the spending bill passed last December because some lawmakers requested additional reforms related the Forest Service’s long-term budget outlook, while others requested contentious changes to how the agency manages national forests and conducts environmental reviews.
Robbing fire prevention accounts to fight fires makes no sense and needs to end as soon as possible. A straightforward, narrow fix to the federal wildfire budgeting process is uncontroversial and needed urgently. Congress should pass the budget fix on its own now and buy time to find consensus on broad reforms…”