Politics & Government

Firefighting consumes Forest Service budget, sparks political clash

CalFire firefighter Bo Santiago lights a backfire as the Rocky fire burns near Clearlake, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 3, 2015.
CalFire firefighter Bo Santiago lights a backfire as the Rocky fire burns near Clearlake, Calif., on Monday, Aug. 3, 2015. AP

Lawmakers are seeking budget solutions amid a superheated political climate as the wildland fires now raging across California, Washington and other Western states burn through federal dollars as well as forests.

A new report warns the funding problem will worsen. Whether Congress rallies is another matter.

For the first time in the Forest Service’s 110-year history, the agency is spending more than half its budget on fire-related activities. Unless something changes, the new 16-page report predicts, firefighting will consume two-thirds of the agency’s budget within a decade.

“We have been pointing out this challenge for the past few years, but we have not been able to address it through our current budget process,” Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell noted.

The Forest Service reports spending 52 percent of its total discretionary budget on firefighting preparedness, suppression, hazardous fuels reduction and related programs this year. In 1995, fire activities accounted for 16 percent of the agency’s budget.

By 2025, officials contend fire-related spending will use up more than 67 percent of the budget.

Climate change and other factors largely beyond our control are causing the cost of fighting fires to rise every year.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

So far this year, 36,959 wildland fires have burned 5.9 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. That’s three times as many acres as were burned during the same period last year.

California leads all others with 14 large fires currently burning. Washington state is second, with seven large active fires. Inevitably, Western state lawmakers are taking the lead in efforts to overhaul budgeting.

“You get into a fire year like this one, and maybe you have a better chance of (passing legislation),” Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said in an interview Wednesday. “The fires continue to grow.”

The Forest Service’s fire-related staffing, for instance, has increased by 118 percent since 1998, while forest management staff fell by 39 percent during the same period. Maintenance and improvement funding for the Forest Service’s 45,000 buildings has shrunk by 68 percent since 2001, the study notes.

“The Forest Service in recent years has absorbed skyrocketing costs related to fire and relied increasingly on ‘fire transfer,’ moving resources from non-fire accounts to cover firefighting costs,” the new report states.

Tidwell and other Obama administration officials, including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, are deploying the new study this week as part of their campaign to overhaul Forest Service budgeting.

In part, the administration wants to treat wildland fire as a disaster, such as a flood or a hurricane, rather than as a normal day-to-day government service. When firefighting costs exceed the amount appropriated by Congress, the emergency spending would then be exempt from normal budget caps, rather than having it be siphoned off from other programs.

The administration supports the related Wildfire Disaster Fund Act, re-introduced in March by Simpson, along with 124 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives.

“Wildfires are every bit of a natural disaster as those other activities,” Simpson said. “We’re trying to stop the fire borrowing.”

A California Democrat who supports Simpson’s approach, Rep. John Garamendi, added in an interview Wednesday that “the solution is to set up two separate budgets; one part would be the firefighting budget, the other would cover the rest.”

Washington state Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell has been working on a separate firefighting package as well, covering budget costs, along with firefighter safety and other issues. Its details still under wraps, the bill will be introduced after August.

Increasing development near forest boundaries also drives up costs, as more than 46 million homes and more than 70,000 communities are at risk from wildfire in the United States.

U.S. Forest Service

Simpson introduced a bipartisan wildfire disaster bill last Congress. When it didn’t move, Democrats, including 38 from California and eight from Washington, tried to dislodge it from committee and force a vote through an unusual “discharge petition” procedure.

Republicans resisted, Garamendi said, because some opposed budgetary changes or increased spending.

Another approach is to increase the Forest Service’s overall firefighting budget, perhaps by pegging it to a different formula.

An even more far-reaching package approved by the House on a mostly party-line vote July 9 would shift emergency funding into firefighting, but also speed timber salvage environmental reviews and erect new hurdles to lawsuits.

“The bromides of the environmental left have proven disastrous to the health of our forests, the preservation of our wildlife, and the welfare of our mountain communities,” Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., said during House debate.

The Obama administration strongly opposes the bill, called the Resilient Federal Forests Act, though it includes within it budget proposals that could be the basis for future compromise.

“I have reason to believe it will be significantly modified,” Garamendi said, adding that “if we can tone it down” while “we build up the funding,” the measure might be rendered palatable.

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