On March 18, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Interior and Environment Subcommittee met with the chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Tom Tidwell, to discuss the agency’s fiscal 2015-16 budget request.
During the hearing, several questions were asked about how the Forest Service funds the cost of firefighting when it exceeds appropriate levels and other firefighting issues, including air attack. These are some of those highlights.
While Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the subcommittee chair, was not excited about the requested increase for land acquisition, she complimented Tidwell for maintaining the level of funding, which the subcommittee had added last year, for hazardous fuels reduction projects.
Each year funding to combat wildfires is typically insufficient to cover total costs. Consequently, the Forest Service uses funds from other programs until Congress can appropriate additional money for fire suppression activities.
Congress discussed but failed to pass legislation last summer to change or eliminate this “fire borrowing.” But Murkowski said, “I am hopeful during the course of this Congress we can find a way that will reach agreement and have to end this destructive cycle.”
Agreeing with her, Sen. Charles Udall (D-Colorado) said, “ We can’t keep borrowing more beyond the cycle we’re stuck in. Forest Service needs to be able to pay for firefighting without gouging its other areas.
“The ‘Disaster Cap’ provides the opportunity to stop the borrowing and putting an end, once and for all, of the need to steal funds from land-management projects to pay for fires,” Udall recommended.
During his testimony on the budget request, Tidwell also urged the subcommittee and the whole Congress to address and resolve the problem.
“It is past time to find a fix,” he said. “We need to stop the transfer [of funds] to stop from shutting down our operations every August.”
The administration’s proposal continues to request suppression funds equal to the 10-year average cost of fire suppression. This would be sufficient to cover the costs of about 99 percent of the fires on Forest Service lands, according to Tidwell.
The “Disaster Cap” would treat the costs of large fire suppression similar to the federal response to other natural disasters, such as floods and earthquakes, Tidwell said. One percent of fires grow so large their cost of suppression is about 30 percent of total costs.
In the 2014 fire season, the 10 most expensive fires cost $329 million, Tidwell told the subcommittee. The “Disaster Cap” funding would be available for these fires.
“It’s essential to find funding for fire suppression in the year it’s occurring,” Tidwell implored the subcommittee. “But we’ll continue to take action necessary to suppress fires wherever we need to suppress fires. And we’ll pay for cost of fire suppression one way or another.”
When asked about the progress on improving and establishing an air tanker fleet for fire suppression, Tidwell stated, “We’ve entered into a contract to get a business case proposal to begin to look at what is the best way to move forward — what aircraft to acquire and which to purchase and which to contract for. I feel we need a mix of contract aircraft and government owned aircraft.”