Western U.S. residents could endure two more lethal wildfire seasons before the implementation of a widely-praised fix to how the federal government funds fighting and preventing wildfires.
The fix, included in federal budget legislation approved last week, was hailed as a long-sought antidote to funding troubles that have plagued the region’s firefighting efforts for years.
Wildfires killed a record 46 people in California and destroyed or damaged more than 10,000 structures in the state last year. Officials have warned without proper prevention 2018 could be even worse.
But the fix that was supposed to provide lots of help won’t kick in until fall of 2019.
Cal Fire, the state arm of preventing and fighting wildfires that works with the U.S. Forest Service, reported a record 129 million dead trees on 8.9 million acres in the state in December, an additional 27 million from a year before.
Randy Moore, Forest Service regional forester in the Pacific Southwest Region, said in December without more prevention efforts and what is referred to as forest management – typically thinning forests of trees and underbrush that are particularly prone to fires – wildfire risks would continue to rise.
“We haven’t had a major wildfire in the tree mortality area yet,” said Mike Mohler, deputy director of Cal Fire, referring to concentrated areas of dead trees spread throughout the state. “But it’s not a matter of if that happens, it’s when.”
He declined to comment on the effect of waiting two more seasons for the funding fix, and said any new money was “a massive step forward.”
Congress last week finally managed to pass an additional $2 billion per year to the Forest Service starting in 2020 that will allow the agency to focus more money on preventing wildfires, rather than continuing the practice known as fire borrowing, or cutting significantly into the fire prevention budget to cover the underfunded costs of fighting them.
The budget does include some additional money this year — an additional $500 million for fighting fires as well as $40 million more in forest management, according to Steven Brink, vice president of public resources at the California Forestry Association, which represents commercial forest landowners and companies dealing with wood products.
That’s helpful for the firefighting efforts, but battling wildfires cost the federal government more than $2.6 billion in 2017. And there’s no guarantee for that additional funding in fiscal year 2019, as Congress will have to pass another budget for that time period.
“It’s a good chunk of money – we’re glad they did something in the short-term as well as long-term,” Brink said, adding “we’ll see” if the $500 million would be enough.
A provision pushed by Republicans also allowed forest management requests of up to 3,000 acres in wildfire-affected regions to bypass certain environmental regulations, which critics complained had tied up some forest management projects for years.
The delay on full funding was triggered by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who wanted the funding to stay within the 2018-2019 discretionary spending caps Congress set in February, according to a senior House Republican aide, because spending cap levels were already high. He was fine with allocating funds that stayed within those caps, but all parties eventually agreed to start the full level of funding in fiscal year 2020, according to the aide.
The fix was widely praised by members of both political parties from the West. Many have been trying to get this sort of funding on wildfires for years but repeatedly failed to get congressional action.
Ryan has publicly spoken against creating new funding for fighting wildfires in the past, warning members not to approve a bill that would have had similar fixes to wildfire funding when he was Budget Committee Chairman in 2014.
He cited the prospect of increasing federal spending too rapidly, and advocated for instead fully funding the way wildfire fighting was already handled in the federal budget, called the FLAME account.
That account provided the U.S. Forest Service with a fund calculated by taking the 10-year average cost of fighting wildfires. That was the method that resulted in the underfunding and necessary fire borrowing from wildfire prevention funding.
Research shows for every $1 spent on wildfire prevention, taxpayers save $6 to $8, Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Penn., chairman of the a House emergency management subcommittee, at a hearing on wildfire impacts earlier in March.