USA — Legislation that would establish a permanent fund for fighting catastrophic wildland fires was reintroduced in Congress this week in anticipation of what is projected to be yet another record fire season.
Democrats Congressmen Nick Rahall of West Virginia and Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico to reintroduce the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act, called the FLAME Act. The measure would establish a new federal fund to cover the growing costs associated with fighting wildland fire emergencies.
The House approved a similar bill in the last session of Congress, but it died in the Senate.
“Fire seasons on public lands are getting longer and more intense, putting American lives and our treasured public lands in harm’s way. Fighting these fires is eroding other non-fire programs and impacting the core mission of the Federal land management agencies – turning our Forest Service into the Fire Service,” said Rahall, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
“This legislation will help ensure that America’s brave firefighters have the necessary tools to continue putting out fires with minimal damage to life and property,” he said.
“The costs for fighting wildfires are rising rapidly, and this escalation is eroding other programs and impacting the core mission of our land management agencies, particularly the Forest Service,” said Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“Both the Forest Service and the Interior Department have had to rob funds from other agency accounts to cover these costs. Solving this problem will require the cooperation of the administration and other Committees in Congress, but the FLAME Act takes a major step forward in that direction,” Bingaman said.
Federal fire suppression spending has skyrocketed over the past 10 years, now consuming 48 percent of the budget appropriated for the Forest Service, an agency of the Department of Agriculture. Agencies have been forced to borrow funds from other important accounts to cover these costs. This increase is expected to continue in the foreseeable future.
“The cost of fighting catastrophic wildfires on public lands has engulfed federal agency budgets,” said Congressman Raul Grijalva of Arizona, who chairs the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. “By creating a separate fund to pay for these fires, the agencies can use their existing budgets to slowly get ahead of the curve, by spending money up front to protect communities, restore natural processes, and manage public lands properly,”
U.S. Forest Service statistics show that the agency’s annual fire suppression costs have exceeded $1 billion in four of the years from 2000 through 2006.
In 2006 the agency spent $1.5 billion in suppression costs, on over 2 million acres burned. Nearly $400 million was spent on 20 of the largest fires. During 2006 the nation had 14 fires topping 100,000 acres in size, and five of these occurred on national forests.
“Fires in recent years have become larger and more difficult to control due to a variety of factors, including climate change, historic fire suppression efforts resulting in increased density of hazard fuels, and expansion of residences in the wildland urban interface,” the Forest Service says in its 2009 budget justification document.
“As application of Federal firefighting resources on both Federal and non-Federal land has grown, these costs escalate, and so to does the 10-year average of annual fire suppression expenditures, which determines the programs budget request.”
The Wildland Fire Management account includes $994 million for wildland fire suppression in 2009.
“As a leader in wildland fire management, the Forest Service will continue its aggressive implementation of cost-containment, decision support, and operational leadership reforms to ensure our tradition of high quality public service amidst the challenges of the coming decade,” said Director of Wildland Fire Management Tom Harbour.
The FLAME Act, H.R. 1404, would create a federal fund designated solely for catastrophic, emergency wildland fires as declared by the Secretary of Agriculture or the Secretary of the Interior, based on the size, severity, and threat of the incident.
The measure would require the both Cabinet secretaries to submit a long-overdue report to Congress containing a cohesive wildland fire management strategy to improve fire prevention efforts on public lands.
The Government Accountability Office and the USDA Inspector General have found that these agencies lack sufficient systems and strategies to plan for and prevent wildland fires.
The Obama Administration has indicated support for working with the Congress on this issue, and the President included funding that complements the FLAME Act in his Fiscal Year 2010 budget request.
The bill provides that the amount appropriated to the Flame Fund for fiscal year 2010 and each fiscal year thereafter should be not less than the average amount expended by the secretaries of interior and agriculture for emergency wildland fire suppression activities over the five preceding fiscal years.
Co-sponsors in both the House and the Senate include both Democrats and Republicans, mostly from Western states.