As fire season nears, Congress mulls 'fire borrowing' reform
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WASHINGTON, May 5, 2015 - This year's fire season will be worse than average for Western and North-Central states due to particularly dry conditions and a meager snowpack, Forest Service (FS) Chief Tom Tidwell told senators Tuesday during an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing. And once again, the Forest Service, tasked with preventing and suppressing wildland fires, will finance its firefighting by dipping into its other programs, which ironically, are crucial to wildfire prevention.
“If there is one thing we can agree on in this committee, it's that we have to stop the fire borrowing,” Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said at the hearing.
“We need a paradigm shift from ‘fire control at all costs' to actual fire management… (which) implement(s) a wildfire policy that responsibly funds wildfire suppression needs, ends the unsustainable practice of fire borrowing, helps fire-wise our community and makes the necessary investments in a full suite of fuel treatments,” Murkowski said.
In the past 15 years, the Forest Service - a USDA agency - and the Department of Interior have spent a combined $24 billion “just fighting the large wildfires,” Ranking Member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said.
Those same agencies have taken funds from other programs to pay for fire suppression in seven of the last 12 years, according to FS, and in 2014, FS shifted $470 million in funding earmarked for hazardous fuels reduction and forest restoration projects to fire suppression.
This season, the Forest Service plans to “borrow” again to pay the estimated $1.225 billion cost of fighting wildfires and protecting private property within the “wildlands urban interface.”
“We need to ensure that federal agencies have the money necessary to protect our communities and we need to treat wildfires differently in our budget,” Cantwell said.
Two lawmakers are attempting to do just that. Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, introduced two very similar bills in January that would create a wildfire suppression account at the USDA or the DOI, as well as a mechanism for determining supplemental appropriations for that account.
Both Wyden and Simpson's versions of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2015 would require the relevant department to submit a funding request to Congress along with a plan for obligating those funds.
The difference between the bills is the limit for how much can be authorized for fire suppression. Simpson's, (H.R. 167), would allow up to $2.689 billion in annual appropriations for fiscal 2015 through 2022, while Wyden's bill, (S. 235), would cap the account starting at $1.41 billion in fiscal 2016 and gradually increase the account to $2.69 billion in 2025.
According to Robert Dillon, the committee's Republican communications director, there is broad support for reforming the funding process with legislation, but committee members are concerned that the bills might be unwittingly writing “blank checks” for firefighting operations.
In addition to creating a separate fire suppression reserve, Tidwell has long advocated for reclassifying the top 1 percent of catastrophic fires - which consume about 30 percent of the wildland firefighting budget - as natural disasters, opening up new funding streams and helping to ease the burden on FS's budget. Such a move would make FS more like other agencies that are responsible for responding to natural disasters.
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