Congress approves disaster funds for wildfires

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Borrowing of program funding ends

The federal Omnibus 2018 funding bill also included changes to the way the funding for wildfire suppression will be made in the future.

Currently, when suppression costs exceed Congress’ appropriated funding, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management must “borrow” funds from other programs, such as recreation or forest management.

In some years, Congress does not appropriate more funding to replace the borrowing. Consequently, the borrowed money is not repaid and the other programs suffer.

Starting this fiscal year, the new bill authorizes disaster relief funding, such as for damage from floods or hurricanes, as the source for suppression funding that exceeds the 10-year-average fire-suppression costs.

The solution included in the omnibus provides a new funding structure from fiscal 2020 through fiscal 2027. Beginning in 2020, $2.25 billion of new budget authority is available to both the departments of agriculture and interior. Each year through fiscal 2027, another $100 million is added to the funding level, until it reaches $2.95 billion.

For the duration of the eight-year fix, fire suppression will be funded at the 2015 president’s budget request of $1 billion. If funding in the cap is used, the secretary of agriculture must submit a report to Congress documenting aspects of fire season, such as decision-making and cost drivers, that led to the expenditures.

“The fire funding fix, which has been sought for decades, is an important inclusion in the omnibus spending bill and I commend Congress for addressing the issue,” said Sonny Perdue, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Improving the way we fund wildfire suppression will help us better manage our forests. If we ensure that we have adequate resources for forest management, we can mitigate the frequency of wildfires and severity of future fire seasons.”

The Forest Service’s fire suppression budget was funded at a rolling 10-year average. Because fire seasons are longer and conditions are worse, the 10-year rolling fire suppression budget average kept rising, consuming a greater percentage of the total Forest Service budget each year.

Last year, wildfire suppression costs exceeded $2.5 billion, making it the most expensive year on record. At the peak of fire season, more than 28,000 personnel were dispatched to fires, along with aircraft and other emergency response resources, according to the Forest Service’s press release after the appropriations bill passed.

“Common sense has finally prevailed when it comes to how the Forest Service pays to fight record-breaking forest fires that devastate homes and communities in Oregon and the West,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said in a press release. “… This long-overdue, bipartisan solution to the madness of ‘fire borrowing’ will at last treat these infernos like the natural disasters they are, with the benefit that millions of dollars will now be liberated each year for essential wildfire prevention.”

“This puts an end to fire borrowing and is a start to giving the Forest Service the predictable resources they need to reduce hazardous fuels,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA).

Not all congressmen felt the funding change was satisfactory, Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a press release when the bill was released, “Democrats, especially in the Senate, stood in the way of forest reform that could have prevented future catastrophic wildfires. When we have another record fire season, we’ll look back at this bill as a missed opportunity. The fire-funding fix slightly improves the Forest Service’s flexibility, but the bill does very little to restore the health of our nation’s forests.”

However, environmentalists, including the Nature Conservancy, were delighted. In a press release, Lynn Scarlett, co-chief external affairs officer for the Nature Conservancy said, “The comprehensive solution to the wildfire funding problem included in the bill is a tremendous victory. It would mean we will no longer have to pay to fight increasing wildfire disasters out of the very same budgets that could have instead gone toward making forests healthier and less prone to these extreme wildfires in the first place. This is a huge improvement that will mean millions more in funding every year for the important restoration and conservation work of the Forest Service and Department of the Interior on national forests and other public lands.”

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