The FLAME Act of 2009 was supposed to ensure the Forest Service had enough money to fight fires without having to cut into programs to provide recreation, protect habitat and improve forest health.
But after Congress raided the fund established by the law during the 2011 standoff over the debt ceiling, and after further cuts this year, the fund is empty. That has the agency preparing to make cuts elsewhere as the fire season is hitting its peak in Idaho and just beginning in California.
The agency that manages 193 million acres nationwide and 20 million acres in Idaho foresaw the shortfall coming in May. It quietly ordered managers to fight every fire as soon as it starts, which it says goes against its own science and goals. It also required regional foresters to approve “any suppression strategy that includes restoration objectives,” wrote James Hubbard, Forest Service deputy chief for state and private forestry, in a May 25 memo.
“I acknowledge this is not a desirable approach in the long run,” Hubbard wrote.
Today, just one fire nationwide, a blaze in the Teton Wilderness near Yellowstone, has received that approval. The Interior Department, which did not issue a similar directive, is letting one fire burn for restoration purposes in Yellowstone National Park.
Fire in the forests
Most scientists and fire managers agree that fire is a healthy and necessary part of the forest, and that fighting these blazes serves only to build up fuels and boost the size and frequency of fires that do turn catastrophic. Federal agencies still put out 97 to 99 percent of all fires that start.
Hubbard’s memo, which became public only this month, raised fears among agency critics of a backward shift to a policy where federal agencies attack every wildfire, many deep in the woods, increasing the cost of suppression.
But Hubbard suggested in the memo that catching more fires right as they start would actually save money.
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said the memo was designed to ensure that decisions about fires allowed to burn for restoration purposes were made by regional foresters so the national situation was taken into account.
“It’s not a change of policy,” Tidwell told the Statesman. “It’s not about saving money. It’s about recognizing the conditions we have this year.”
Letting the fire come to them
Briefings given to Gov. Butch Otter and reporters this week about how the agency is fighting three huge fires in Idaho support Tidwell’s argument. They showed that commanders were placing firefighters, firelines, engines and other resources in front of the communities, roads and scenic areas and, in places like Featherville and near Stanley, letting the fires burn to them.
They also were allowing fires to burn into wilderness and areas that had previously burned, where fire moves more slowly.
That saves money and keeps firefighters out of harm’s way.
“Using technology, our incident commanders are making better and better decisions,” Tidwell said.
A fire funding fix?
The FLAME — Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement — Act set up separate funds for the Forest Service where surplus firefighting funds in quieter fire years could be saved for big years like this.
But Congress took $200 million from the fund in 2011 as a part of the deal to keep the government running in the debt-ceiling standoff. Congress took another $240 million in surplus funds in 2012.
Before the FLAME Act, Congress passed bills to cover the extra cost of firefighting every year from 2002 to 2008.
But with Congress divided and the pressure to reduce government spending growing, the chances for a supplemental spending bill this year are uncertain. Earlier this month, Tidwell hiked with Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson, chairman of the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area where the Halstead Fire already was burning.
Simpson’s committee made the cuts that are now squeezing the agency, and the pair couldn’t ignore the issue. “Since we couldn’t see the peaks for all the smoke, yes, we talked about it,” Simpson said.
With a 2013 budget unlikely by the Oct. 1 start of the budget year, Simpson said a continuing resolution to finance the government is in the works. It could include money to cover the Forest Service shortfall, he said.
“We’re working on it,” said Simpson. “We’re trying to address this in next year’s budget.”
The Forest Service sets its firefighting and suppression budget based on a 10-year rolling average of its costs. For the past two years, Congress has met this 10-year average by raiding the FLAME Act and other funds.
Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador was among the lawmakers in 2011 opposed to increasing the debt ceiling unless deep cuts were made.
"The fires that are burning on our national forests in Idaho are the result of years of fuel buildup and dry weather, not congressional funding," Labrador said. "I am passionate about making Idaho forests more healthy through management practices that reduce fuel loads.”
Meanwhile, the Forest Service’s total fire budget dropped by 6.3% this year, from $2.3 billion in 2011 to $2.16 billion. The agency is fast approaching the $948 million budgeted for fire suppression.
Tidwell said he may not have to transfer funds from other programs to the fire budget before Congress acts. “A lot of it just depends on what happens over the next few weeks,” Tidwell said.
Critic sees political motive
Even with heightened concern about the federal deficit, there is little chance Congress won’t pay whatever the Forest Service or other agencies say they need to fight fire, said Andy Stahl, director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a watchdog group.
Politics and bureaucratic inertia push state and federal agencies to spend more on fighting fire than preventing it, he said.
Stahl sees other motives behind the Hubbard memo.
“In an election year, when a big fire hits Southern California, the White House can pull out this memo and say ‘We did everything that can be done,’ ” Stahl said.
Tidwell said that wasn’t his agency’s motive.
“Our actions on fire are always driven by keeping our firefighters and the public safe,” he said.