Congress seeking solution for paying wildfire costs

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Last week, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the U.S. Forest Service 2014-15 budget request. However, the focus of most of the witnesses and Senate members was on possible solutions to the perennial “forest borrowing” problem.

If the costs of firefighting exceed the funds Congress has appropriated, the Forest Service can only rely on using funds that were originally for other purposes, such as forestry, recreation or construction, to pay immediate fire suppression expenses. This has happened in eight of the past 10 years. Usually, Congress will pass a supplemental bill after fire season restoring the borrowed amounts, but the total does not always equal the borrowed funding.

Recently, two separate bills have been introduced to alleviate this problem. Senators Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, proposed S. 1875 and a week before the hearing, Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and John Barrasso, R-Wyo. offered S. 2593.

Meanwhile the administration proposed its own solution, similar to S. 1875, in its fiscal 2014-15 budget proposal.

As the hearing began, Chair Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., defined the issue: “The exponential growth in the cost of fighting larger and more intense fires has put a real strain on the budget of the Forest Service in particular. In 1991, the Forest Service spent 13 percent of its overall budget on wildfire management, but today that number is over 40 percent.”

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, S. 1875, would place wildfire in the same category as other natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods and earthquakes. This approach was also included in President Barack Obama’s 2014-15 budget request for the Forest Service.

Seventy percent of the anticipated cost of fire suppression would be funded in the traditional appropriation process, but any costs exceeding that level would come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster funding.

S. 2593 offers a slightly different cure to the “forest borrowing” conundrum. McCain and the other senators see a difference between wildfires and natural disasters.

“… wildfires deserve some level of budget flexibility. But unlike hurricanes and earthquakes, the federal government can take action to reduce wildfire severity through forest thinning,” McCain told the senate committee.

Thus, this bill would make disaster funding available only if 100 percent of the anticipated fire suppression costs have been budgeted. Another criterion is the investment of funding in hazardous fuels reduction project and insect disease treatment projects.

Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell testified that S. 1875, similar to the administration’s proposal, would “stop fire transfers and that disruptive process and promote stable funding sources.”

In support of thinning projects, Tidwell said, “We’ve analyzed more than 1,000 of our hazardous fuel treatments and over 90 percent of these treatments have reduced the severity of the fire’s behavior. So it’s easier for us and safer for firefighters.”

 

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