USA — Nearly every year the costs of fighting wildfires burn through the budgets of the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management like a blaze sweeping through kindling-dry forest.
It doesnt take many catastrophic fires before the agencies are forced to start siphoning money from other programs such as fire prevention, road maintenance, campground renovation, timber sales … the list goes on.
Last year, for example, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell announced in August that his agency needed to redirect $600 million from other programs to cover the cost of fighting wildfires. In one year alone, 2002, the agency had to move nearly a billion dollars from other parts of its budget to cover firefighting costs.
That makes no sense, especially when it comes to reducing the funding thats needed to treat the Wests increasingly dense and overgrown forests to make them less vulnerable to wildfires. Any budgeting system that fights fires with money needed to prevent those same fires and the very real threat they pose to firefighters and property needs to be changed.
Congress tried to address the problem in 2009 when it passed the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act (better known as the FLAME Act), which created a special wildfire reserve fund.
In their efforts to reduce the federal deficit, federal lawmakers have steadily reduced the amount of money available to that fund, and the across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration have caused further reductions.
Enter U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who along with Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, has introduced legislation that would treat wildfires like natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornados that arent paid for through federal agencies regular budgets.
Under the Wyden bill, the Forest Service and Interior Department, which oversees the BLM, would be responsible for paying the first 70 percent of average fire costs. Firefighting costs exceeding that amount that would have to come from federal emergency accounts that help pay for the federal governments response to other natural disasters.
Wyden estimates that removing the cost of fighting major wildfires from land management agencies regular budget could free up to $412 million for them to fund fire prevention and hazardous fuels reduction projects that, in turn, can help break the cycle of increasingly dangerous and costly fires.
The Wyden bill has the support of environmental, timber industry, state forestry and recreation groups that say it would help stabilize and protect federal spending on thinning and other fuel-reduction programs.
If the current system is not changed, the cost of fighting major wildfires will devour increasingly larger shares of funding for federal agencies such as the Forest Service and BLM.
Other members of the Western states congressional delegations should join Wyden in making certain that federal agencies have the money they need to fight future wildfires without sacrificing their other vital work.