USDA seeks disaster funding to fight wildfires

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Aug. 20, 2014-- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced the release of a report compiled by the U.S. Forest Service, which says the cost of fighting forest fires increased over the last 20 years as the budgets for other forest programs, including those that can help prevent fire damage, have shrunk.

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According to the report, the Forest Service's firefighting appropriation has rapidly risen as a proportion of the Forest Service's overall budget, increasing from 16 percent in 1995 to 42 percent today, forcing cuts in other budget areas.

Vilsack said the Forest Service's non-fire program budgets are affected by "fire borrowing." In most years since 2000, agency costs for fire suppression are covered through transferring, or "borrowing" additional funds from other Forest Service programs.

"Climate change, drought, fuel buildup and insects and disease are increasing the severity of catastrophic wildfire in America's forests," Vilsack said, adding that the average number of fires on Federal lands has doubled since 1980 and the total area burned annually has tripled.

Vilsack asked Congress to allow existing disaster funds to provide resources for wildfires in years when Forest Service and Department of Interior fire costs exceed the amount that is budgeted, rather than forcing borrowing from non-fire programs.

"These proposals don't increase the deficit, they just budget smarter by allowing existing natural disaster funding to be used in cases of catastrophic wildfire,” he said. 

The report acknowledges that fire staffing has increased 110 percent since 1998, but it says staffing for those dedicated to managing National Forest Service lands decreased 35 percent over the same period.

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