Feds see $470 million gap in firefighting budget

 firefighters teamed up in March 2012 to quell an early season wildfire along Montezuma Road, near Keystone Resort, in Summit County, Colorado. Bob Berwyn photo.
Firefighters teamed up in March 2012 to quell an early season wildfire near Keystone Resort, in Summit County, Colorado. Bob Berwyn photo.

Funding shortfall has ripple effect in other public lands programs

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — With a dangerous fire season forecast for parts of the country, especially the drought-stricken far West and Southern Plains, federal firefighting agencies will likely once again face a huge budget shortfall. That could require the Forest Service to divert funds from other programs, according to top administration officials who presented the report to Congress.

The report projects firefighting costs of about $1.8 billion, with only $1.4 billion budgeted. The Obama administration is advocating for a budget that would close the gap by giving firefighting agencies the ability to use emergency funds separate from their discretionary budgets to fight fires.

Similar legislation is pending in Congress, where the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act is cosponsored by Sen.Michal Bennet (D-CO) and Senators Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

“A warming climate and persistent drought have led to record-breaking wildfires across the West.  Unfortunately, that trend is projected to continue this summer,” Bennet said. “This announcement is further proof that we need a smarter, more sensible approach to fund fighting the worst wildfires rather than taking money from programs that help prevent fires in the first place.”

During the last three decades, the average length of the fire season has increased by 60-80 days and the annual acreage burned has more than doubled to more than 7 million acres annually. In addition, growing housing development in forests has put more people and houses in harms’ way, which making firefighting efforts more expensive.

“The forecast released today demonstrates the difficult budget position the Forest Service and Interior face in our efforts to fight catastrophic wildfire,” said Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Robert Bonnie. “While our agencies will spend the necessary resources to protect people, homes and our forests, the high levels of wildfire this report predicts would force us to borrow funds from forest restoration, recreation and other areas,” Bonnie said.

Similar issues cropped up last summer, when the Forest Service had to stop working on other forest projects, including forest restoration efforts, when the money ran out.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, fire managers are concerned about the foothills and mountains in southern California, where current conditions have to potential to cause significant fire activity this month. Other areas of concern include the Plains from southeastern Colorado to Iowa, northern Missouri, and southwestern and south central Alaska. By May, most of California and western Alaska will be at risk with the potential for large fires.

“With climate change contributing to longer and more intense wildfire seasons, the dangers and costs of fighting those fires increase substantially,” said Department of Interior Assistant Secretary of Policy, Management and Budget Rhea Suh. “The President’s budget proposal would provide a commonsense framework that gives the flexibility to accommodate peak fire seasons but not at the cost of other Interior or Forest Service missions, or by adding to the deficit,” Suh said.

Fire borrowing has happened the last seven out of twelve years and the risks associated with the practice were examined in a hearing Bennet chaired in November entitled “Shortchanging Our Forests: How Tight Budgets and Management Decisions Can Increase the Risk of Wildfire.”


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