Federal wildfire budgets need a makeover

Congress makes bipartisan push to reform funding for prevention

The East Peak Fire burns in late June, 2013 in the Spanish Peaks area. Photo courtesy Inciweb.org/Don Degman.
The East Peak Fire burns in late June, 2013 in the Spanish Peaks area. Photo courtesy Inciweb.org/Don Degman.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — A bipartisan group of U.S. Senators says the Forest Service must find a better to allocate funds for firefighting. Cutting money for wildfire prevention leads to spiraling costs for firefighting and ultimately increases the size of fires, the senators wrote in a June 28 letter to cabinet members.

The letter requests the administration to create an action plan to fully fund prevention efforts such as hazardous fuels reduction, in addition to fire suppression efforts. Currently, the administration takes funds from other non-fire programs to pay for fire suppression costs – a practice called fire borrowing.

The letter was signed by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Mark Udall, D-Colo., and James Risch, R-Idaho. The lawmakers cited recent figures showing that the Forest Service has cut back on programs to reduce fire risks in areas where homes and the wilderness collide. The U.S. Forest Service treated 1.87 million acres of those lands in 2012, but expects to treat only 685,000 acres next year, out of millions of acres that need treatment.

“Our understanding is that these cuts were based on OMB’s continued skepticism about the efficacy of hazardous fuels treatments. We whole-heartedly disagree with OMB on this point,” the senators wrote.

The most effective fire prevention efforts are those that focus narrowly on reducing fuels in direct proximity to homes, but numerous fuel reduction projects in Colorado have been outside the wildland-urban interface, in areas where they won’t do much to prevent damage to neighborhoods. And several reports, including one requested by Udall, have showed that some fuel treatment projects have been ineffective simply because they haven’t been implemented properly. In the worst-case scenario, there’s even some evidence that some fuel treatment projects can increase wildfire intensity.

But on the whole, targeted treatments in the right place have the potential to reduce the impact of wildfires on human neighborhoods and other developed infrastructure.

“When the budgeted amount is insufficient, the agency continues to suppress fires by reallocating funds from other non-fire programs,” they continued. “This approach to paying for firefighting is nonsensical and further increases wildland fire costs.”

At the same time, wildfires continue to spread and their costs steadily rise. Across the country, 65 million acres of national forest — an area bigger than Oregon – are at a high risk for fires, according to a Forest Service report issued last year. In the last ten years, fire suppression costs have increased from 13 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget to 40 percent last year.

In addition, the senators urged the administration to implement the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act as Congress intended, which was enacted in 2009 to provide additional suppression funding for emergency wildfires above and beyond the 10-year rolling average. The bill was intended to end the practice of raiding non-fire accounts — including fire prevention programs — to pay for fire suppression when the agency runs over its firefighting budget. The FLAME Act created a reserve fund for years when costs exceeded the budget, but the administration has failed to enact the law as Congress intended and has continued to disrupt prevention efforts by borrowing from non-fire accounts.

“Despite Congressional intent, OMB has forced the agencies to implement the FLAME Act in a manner that makes it ineffective: instead of funding the FLAME account in addition to the 10-year average cost of suppression, the account is funded as part of the 10-year average cost of suppression,” the senators further wrote.

In the early weeks of this fire season, massive wildfires have already burned more than one million acres and destroyed hundreds of homes in Colorado, California, Arizona and New Mexico.

Wyden chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Murkowski serves as the ranking member of the panel, which held a hearing on wildland fire management at the beginning of June. Udall and Risch are senior members of the committee. In the hearing, Wyden and other committee members pressed the Administration to explain why it has resisted providing funding for these important fire prevention efforts.


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