Witnesses decry 'fire borrowing' at Senate hearings

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, July 16, 2015 - A pair of Senate hearings today reviewed 11 separate bills aimed at addressing problems facing the nation's forests, including how to pay for the ever-increasing threat of fire.

In the morning, the Agriculture Committee focused on two issues: so-called “fire borrowing” and prescribed burns.

Robert Bonnie, USDA undersecretary for natural resources and environment, told the panel that fire borrowing - reallocating money from non-fire related U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) accounts to pay for wildfire suppression - is hampering other forestry efforts.

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“In most years, nearly 50 percent of our budget goes to wildland fire fighting, and so that challenge has reduced our capacity to be able to get work done, whether it's trails work or whether its forest restoration,” Bonnie said. “The fundamental challenge for us is one of capacity. It's not a lack of will, it's a lack of capacity for the agency.”

Bonnie's testimony came as firefighters battled 28 large wildfires in seven different states, including 17 in Alaska. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, fires so far this year have blackened about 5.5 million acres, well above the 3.1 million-acre average for the same period over the previous 10 years.

Last week, the House passed a bill - The Resilient Federal Forests Act (H.R. 2647) - that would end fire borrowing by transferring funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Disaster Relief Fund to cover additional firefighting costs so long as the proper agencies had already fully exhausted their appropriated suppression funds.

Bonnie also fielded a steady stream of questions about the agencies' prescribed burn practices from lawmakers from the Dakotas - Democrat Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota and South Dakota Republican John Thune. In April 2013, a fire prescribed by USFS - now dubbed the Pautre fire - meant to burn 210 acres of national grasslands was fanned by 30 mile-per-hour winds, eventually charring over 10,000 acres in western South Dakota near the North Dakota border. Heitkamp said ranchers “begged” USFS not to light that fire and said the resulting damages should be the fault of the government.

“If this isn't negligence, I don't know what is,” Heitkamp, a former state attorney general, told Bonnie. “You've got to have a response that when things get out of control that's not, ‘We used our best judgment, therefore, we're never negligent.'”

In June, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sent a letter to Thune saying “a careful and thorough review of the claims disclosed no liability on the part of the U.S. government.” The USFS, he said, “relied on the best information available.” While the weather reports proved to be inaccurate, more than $50 million in liability claims were denied.

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Thune is sponsoring a bill that would require state and local government officials to approve a prescribed burn on federal land, in addition to federal officials, during conditions of drought or fire danger. In the case of the Pautre fire, the fire was only prescribed by USFS. In testimony submitted for the record, Bonnie said the bill makes the government assume full liability for losses “but does not allow for extenuating circumstances” or adjacent landowner negligence. He also pointed out that the bill may force state and local governments to also assume liability on fires receiving their stamp of approval rather than just the federal government.

Fire borrowing was also discussed at the Public Lands, Forests and Mining subcommittee hearing in the afternoon. USFS Chief Tom Tidwell called addressing problems leading to fire borrowing “the most important action Congress can make” to advance “the pace and scale of forest restoration.” In his opening statement, subcommittee chair John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said Congress “must” end the practice of fire borrowing, adding that it means borrowing “from the very accounts that help reduce the risk and cost of wildfire.”

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