Last week, President Barack Obama submitted his budget request for fiscal year 2014-15, which begins Oct. 1. For the U.S. Forest Service, the president is requesting $5.7 billion, an increase of $228 million. This includes a proposed change to funding wildland firefighting.
In past years, if the appropriation for fire suppression was not sufficient to fund those costs, the Forest Service had to rely on taking money from other programs until Congress provided additional funds. And these costs continue to grow. From 2004 through last year, fire suppression costs grew from about 13 percent of the agency’s budget to more than 40 percent.
Starting in fiscal year 2015, the president proposes a significant change to the fire-suppression funding process. In addition to discretionary funding for wildland fire suppression, which is equal to 70 percent of the estimated 10-year average suppression costs, the administration is recommending that Congress provide $954 million as a disaster-funding cap to meet suppression needs above that base appropriation.
If Congress approves the proposal, and several representatives and senators drafted bills to achieve this purpose, other Forest Service programs such as recreation, forestry or maintenance will not have to suspend operations if the number of wildland fires exceeds the average.
Besides this change to fire-suppression funding, the president is recommending another $100 million for the Wildland Fire Management Program and a WFM staffing increase of 403, for a total of 12,168 full-time equivalent positions to implement the program.
About half the funding increase and three-quarters of the positions are for the Hazardous Fuels program, where the Forest Service treats the most strategic and often the most expensive areas. The agency hopes to treat about 1.43 million acres, an increase of 200,000 acres in the wildland-urban interface.
Forest Service priorities will support communities working to achieve Firewise standards, a program that encourages property owners to take responsibility for preparing their homes from wildfire risk. The agency has identified acres to be treated in Community Wildfire Protection Plans and has made an investment in implementing local solutions to protect against wildland fire.
A $23-million increase is recommended for the preparedness program and $27 million more for the suppression program. The president’s budget proposal will fund contracts for 25 airtankers, including legacy airtankers, next-generation large airtankers, and an agency-owned C-130H aircraft. The Forest Service plans to phase out the legacy airtankers as the next-generation large airtankers become available, thereby maintaining between 18 to 28 contracted and agency-owned next-generation large airtankers.
The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act transferred seven C-130H aircraft from the U.S. Coast Guard to the Forest Service. The aircraft will initially be transferred to the U.S. Air Force for retrofitting and installation of a retardant delivery system. One C-130H airtanker may be available for airtanker missions in late 2014.
The president also recommended increasing funds managing the National Forest System by $144 million to a total of $1.6 billion.