Missoula, USA — With a Missoula smokejumpers’ DC-3 airplane as a backdrop, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus on Monday promoted federal legislation that would help fund the increasing costs of wildfire suppression.
“We have to be ready,” Baucus said at the Aerial Fire Depot at the Missoula International Airport. “No one can predict the kind of fire season we’ll have, but odds are we’re staring down the barrel of another bad fire year.”
Last summer Baucus introduced the Stable Fire Funding Act, which would set up an $800 million trust fund that the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management could tap during extraordinary fire seasons to help cover the costs of fire suppression.
A second measure, which was included as a provision in the America’s Climate Security Act, would provide $1.1 billion every year to combat catastrophic fires.
“We are now caught in a cycle of robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Baucus stated several times during the hour-long meeting. “When these agencies have to raid other accounts to pay for firefighting, important maintenance and fuels reduction work falls by the wayside.”
Last year 1,871 fires burned more than 776,000 acres in Montana, according to the Northern Rockies Coordination Center, at a cost of more than $100 million. The Montana Legislature convened a special session in September to pay the state’s share of the firefighting bills. Nationwide the federal government spent more than $1.8 billion fighting wildfires, and that number will climb as the total costs of the catastrophic California wildfires are tallied, Baucus said.
Fire suppression now accounts for close to half of the Forest Service’s annual budget, according to Regional Forester Tom Tidwell.
“I think we need to find something more stable,” Baucus said.
The Stable Fire Funding Act would authorize $600 million in seed money to create a trust fund for the Forest Service, and $200 million in seed money for a BLM trust fund. The interest on that seed money would be used to cover 80 percent of firefighting costs that go over the agencies’ appropriated budgets each year, Baucus said. That bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry where it awaits consideration.
The America’s Climate Security Act passed the Senate Environmental and Public Works Committee last month, but no timetable has been set for full Senate consideration. Baucus’ provision is intended to cover the federal government’s costs to fight the largest 1 percent of “escaped” fires. Those fires currently account for 85 percent of wildfire suppression costs, Baucus said.