Reps. Simpson, Schrader Introduce Bill to Fix Wildfire Budget

Reps. Simpson, Schrader Introduce Bill to Fix Wildfire Budget

07 February 2014

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USA — U.S. Reps. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., have introduced legislation to end the cycle of borrowing from non-fire accounts to pay for wildfire suppression when costs exceed an agency’s firefighting budget.

In recent years, Congress has appropriated wildfire suppression funds based on the average cost over the past 10 years. When costs exceed an agency’s fire budget, a not uncommon reality, that agency has to borrow from non-fire accounts. That means the Forest Service and other agencies have less money for hazardous fuels reduction and other management techniques to prevent catastrophic fires, the congressmen argue.

So wildfires get worse, and wildfire suppression costs devour the agency’s budget.

As fire seasons have grown longer and more destructive, the borrowing has become standard practice. In eight of the past 10 years, the Forest Service has exceeded its wildfire suppression budget. At the same time, the proportion of its budget for wildfire management has risen from 13 percent in the early 1990s to 41 percent last year.

“I have seen firsthand where good forest management practices, like removing hazardous fuels, have made the difference between a manageable fire and total devastation,” Simpson said in a news release. “It costs less, both in taxpayer dollars and in lost lives and property, to prevent wildfires before they start than to fight them once they are out of control. Yet the way we currently budget for fire has created a devastating cycle of fire borrowing that is costing taxpayers and destroying our forests.

“This is why Congressman Schrader and I introduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. This bill treats catastrophic wildfires like similar major natural disasters — such as floods and hurricanes — and ensures that money intended for managing public lands is actually used for that purpose. Changing the way we budget for fire will allow us to continue to fight fires without crippling our ability to prevent future fires from burning out of control.”

“The current system is broken,” Schrader said in the news release, “and it severely hinders the ability of our land management agencies from being able to provide the resources needed to properly manage our forests.”

Routine wildland firefighting costs make up about 70 percent of fire suppression costs. Under the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, these costs would be funded through the normal appropriations process. True emergency fires, which represent about 1 percent of wildland fires but make up 30 percent of costs, would be treated like similar natural disasters and funded under disaster programs, the congressmen announced.

Their H.R. 3992 is companion legislation to S. 1875 by U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

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