USA — President Barack Obama on Monday proposed changing the way the federal government pays for fighting the nation’s biggest wildfires, a move aimed at preserving funds meant to prevent fires beforehand.
In the administration’s 2015 budget request to Congress, which the White House plans to release next week, Obama will recommend allowing the U.S. Forest Service and the Interior Department to use a Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster fund to finance efforts to put out the biggest 1 percent of wildfires.
Congress would have to find the money to fight the remaining 99 percent of the fires, under the plan Obama previewed for Western-state governors. They were in the nation’s capital for the winter meeting of the National Governors Association. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin is the group’s chairwoman.
Until now, Congress has appropriated money for all fires, large and small, but the funding has often fallen short as wildfires have become bigger, deadlier and costlier to battle.
Under Obama’s proposal which Congress would have to endorse wildfires would be added to the list of natural disasters eligible for funding from FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund. Created in 2011, the $12 billion account finances relief work after disasters like hurricanes and major floods. About half the fund’s money is used up every year.
The White House won’t ask Congress to increase funding for the FEMA account but wants lawmakers to allow the use of existing money to pay for putting out wildfires on top of other disasters.
The White House said 1 percent of the blazes soak up 30 percent of the federal government’s wildfire budget.
Obama’s plan would remove the financial responsibility for these mega blazes from the Forest Service and the Interior Department.
That would save the agencies from having to transfer money year after year from other programs to pay the suppression costs exceeding the amounts Congress gives them a practice known as “fire borrowing.”
Many congressional Democrats and Republicans say such borrowing siphons money away from the government’s crucial fire-prevention work such as thinning forests and clearing underbrush before the onset of the fire season.
The administration’s approach is based on legislation filed by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Reps. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., and Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.
Obama’s plan would free $412 million a year for fire-prevention work, according to a congressional estimate. That’s still less than what Congress recommended in 2003 $760 million a year but supporters say the White House’s approach is a good start.