Washington, USA — The federal government wouldrevamp how it pays for firefighting and take some of the burden off the U.S.Forest Service by creating a permanent fund for devastating blazes, underlegislation introduced Thursday by key House Democrats.
As wildfire seasons have grown increasingly expensive over the last decade, thecost of fighting fires has eaten an ever larger portion of the Forest Servicebudget — now about 48 percent of it. That has left the agency with less moneyfor other programs and priorities.
The new fund would be used only for catastrophic, emergency wildland firesuppression. It would be separate from the money budgeted each year by Congressfor anticipated and predicted fire suppression activities for the Forest Serviceand Interior Department; that allocation would continue.
The amount of money in the new fund would be appropriated annually and based onthe average amounts spent by the Forest Service and Interior to suppresscatastrophic fires over the preceding five fiscal years.
Last year, the Forest Service spent $741 millionmore than budgeted and Interior spent $249 million more than budgeted foremergency wildfire suppression, or a total of nearly $1 billion.
The secretaries of the departments would be able to declare fires eligible forthe fund by issuing a suppression emergency declaration that would evaluate thesize, severity and threat of the fire.
The chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., andthe heads of the relevant subcommittees introduced the Federal Land Assistance,Management and Enhancement Act, or FLAME Act. Rahall said the Forest Service hasbeen turned into the Fire Service.
“The dramatic rise in federal costs to fight these fires has erodedcritical funding for non-fire programs and severely altered the core mission ofour federal land management agencies,” he said in a statement. “Thislegislation aims to turn this situation around.”
The other sponsors included Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., chairman of theNational Parks, Forests and Public Lands subpanel, and Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash.,House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee chairman.
The sponsors said 2 percent of fires, those that are not put out during theinitial attack, today account for 80 percent of the costs to the agency.
The act would also require the Interior and Agriculture secretaries to submit areport to Congress one year after enactment containing a cohesive wildland firemanagement strategy.
That would include a system identifying the most cost-effective means forallocating fire management resources, a system for assessing the level of riskto communities, an illustration of plans to re-invest in non-fire programs, adescription of use of appropriate management response, and a system ensuringthat the highest priority fuels reduction projects are being funded first.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., introduced similar legislation in the Senate lastsummer.
That bill, the Stable Fire Funding Act, would authorize $600 million in seedmoney to create a trust fund for the Forest Service and $200 million in seedmoney for a BLM trust fund. That money would generate interest and be used tocover 80 percent of firefighting costs that exceed the agencies’ annual budget.
He described it as a stop-gap measure that would kick in during some years butnot others. More money would be added to the fund as necessary. The Senate billremains in committee.
The Wilderness Society praised the House bill as “a key step in the rightdirection.”
“However, this is only one part of the solution,” said JaelithHall-Rivera, a wildfire policy analyst with the group. “We also need tocontinue to focus on managing fire cost-effectively, and probably mostimportantly, restoring our forests to a state where fire can once again play itsnatural role.”