USA — President Barack Obama’s $3.7 billion emergency funding request Tuesday to resolve the crisis of child immigrants also seeks $615 million to fight wildfires this year.
Obama also asked Congress to add wildfires to the list of natural disasters eligible for federal emergency assistance. That move would eliminate the need for the government to dip into wildfire-prevention programs to pay ever-increasing firefighting costs.
The bulk of the White House’s funding request is for shoring up security along the southwestern border — where thousands of children are arriving without parents or guardians. It also will be used to improve temporary housing for the children in U.S. custody and to speed up their deportation proceedings.
Bigger wildfires are a growing problem, particularly out West. Experts say climate change and other factors such as increasing development along forest edges are to blame.
Of late, the U.S. Forest Service and the Interior Department have transferred money from elsewhere in their budgets to meet escalating costs — a practice known as “fire borrowing.” Congress has reimbursed the agencies after the fact.
In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Obama wrote, “Too often in recent years, this cycle of transfers has undermined our efforts to prepare for and reduce the severity of wildfires, which is both fiscally imprudent and self-defeating.”
Putting wildfires on an equal legislative footing with hurricanes, earthquakes and other major disasters would “provide funding certainty,” allow the government to spend more on programs to reduce the fire risk, “and maintain fiscal responsibility by addressing wildfire disaster needs through agreed-upon funding mechanisms,” Obama wrote.
Boehner didn’t respond directly to the White House’s wildfire proposals. Spokesman Michael Steel addressed just the immigration request, saying it’s under consideration.
“The speaker still supports deploying the National Guard to provide humanitarian support in the affected areas — which this proposal does not address,” Steel said in a statement.
Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat from fire-prone Colorado, urged Congress to quickly approve the emergency request.
“The crisis on the border and the ongoing wildfire season underscore the need for Congress to set politics aside and ensure the federal government has the tools it needs,” he said in a statement.
Obama’s 2015 spending request to Congress has a proposal allowing the Forest Service and the Interior Department to tap into a Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster fund to combat the biggest 1 percent of fires, which consume about 30 percent of Uncle Sam’s wildfire budget each year. Created in 2011, the FEMA fund has about $12 billion, of which about half is used up in a year.
Congress hasn’t acted on the White House’s budget request.