USA — The rising costs of fighting wildfires is forcing the U.S. Forest Service to transfer money from other critical programs year after year, hindering the agency’s efforts to protect people, property and endangered species, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday.
The Forest Service also lacks the funding to cut down enough dead trees and do other preventive work to minimize the fire risk and restore scorched watersheds and forests after the flames die out, Vilsack said.
He released a report showing that 42 percent of this year’s Forest Service budget is for wildfires, up from 16 percent in 1995, and called on Congress to increase the agency’s overall budget and allow the Obama administration to tap into a recently created disaster fund to pay the costs of fighting catastrophic wildfires.
“We need congressional action . . . to provide stability and security and to enable us to do a better job of restoring and making our forests more resilient,” Vilsack said.
As the fires get bigger, the seasons get longer and more Americans move closer to the wilderness, the Forest Service has to dip into other programs to pay the rising firefighting bills — a practice known as “fire borrowing,” Vilsack said.
This “subtle but sustained shifting of funds” has been going on for at least a decade, he told reporters in a conference call, adding that fire borrowing takes an additional toll on an agency that’s already grappling with smaller budgets provided by Congress.
Since 2001, the Forest Service’s vegetation and watershed management programs have been cut by 22 percent, habitat and fisheries programs by 17 percent and road- and bridge-improvement programs by 46 percent. The agency’s $5.5 billion backlog of long-term maintenance projects is growing. According to the report, the deferred maintenance budget has been slashed by 95 percent in the past 14 years.
Money and personnel are being shifted around constantly. In 1998, 5,700 Forest Service employees focused on the fire programs. By 2012, that number had risen to 12,000, USDA said. In that time, the number of employees overseeing Forest Service property — 193 million acres currently — has declined by 35 percent, according to the report.
The report marks the Obama administration’s latest attempt to win congressional approval for the White House’s $615 million emergency request to fight wildfires this year without having do fire borrowing. Lawmakers debated that request but left for the August recess without approving it.
President Barack Obama also wants Congress to add wildfires to the list of natural disasters eligible for assistance from a relief fund set up after Hurricane Sandy and administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The White House wants to tap into that account — which has about $12 billion — to pay the tab for suppressing the biggest 1 to^ @2 percent of wildfires, which eat up about 70 percent of the federal firefighting budget.
The idea has bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. A bill introduced by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, would treat wildfires on par with hurricanes, earthquakes and other disasters when it comes to accessing the Sandy fund. A similar House bill introduced by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, has more than 100 co-sponsors.
In an interview with Gannett last week, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell reiterated that chronic fire borrowing has eaten away at the resources to remove dead and diseased trees and clear brush and undergrowth — “hazardous fuels” that nourish wildfires, making them more difficult and dangerous to suppress.
About 77 million acres under the Forest Service’s control require “treatment and restoration” and some vegetation should be cut down to be used for timber, Tidwell said. Only about 3 million to 4 million acres are typically treated each year and timber cutting takes places on about 220,000 acres, he said.
Vilsack’s call for congressional action came on a day when there were 83 fires burning across the U.S., particularly out West, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
The West Coast faces an “above normal” fire risk through September, according to the Idaho-based group.
Drought-stricken California, Oregon and Washington have had active fire seasons this year. The Pacific Northwest has had more than 2,700 fires that have burned more than 1.1 million acres, federal figures show. California has seen close to 5,900 fires which have burned a total of nearly 280,000 acres.
But the nation as a whole is seeing a milder season compared to many recent ones.
So far this year, there have been 37,119 fires across the country, which have burned 2.6 million acres, according to the Interagency Fire Center. The January-August averages over the past 10 years were higher on both counts — 53,000 fires and 5.4 million acres burned.
Congress shouldn’t use that as an excuse to postpone action, Vilsack cautioned.
For one, he said, it’s still early. October used to be the end of the fire season but now fires can rage on into November and December.
Today’s fires are also bigger due to climate change and other factors, and threaten more Americans — there are 45 million homes in 70,000 wilderness communities, according to Vilsack — and researchers expect that number to grow.
And, despite the milder season, the Forest Service needs to transfer at least $400 million from other accounts to bolster the fire-suppression budget this year, he said.
Fewer fires “doesn’t mean that we don’t have the need for borrowing, doesn’t mean that we don’t have the need for getting this thing resolved,” Vilsack said. “If we don’t have the stability in the fire budget then we can’t do the restoration and resiliency work that’s so important to reducing the risk to those 70,000 communities and 45 million homeowners.”