On September 15, administration officials wrote to members of Congress alerting them again to the dire budgetary situation due to wildfires and fire borrowing. Already this year, the U.S. Forest Service has spent 52 percent (compared to 12 percent 20 years ago) of its total budget on wildfire suppression costs. Wildfire has consumed over 7 million acres in 2015 and it is expected that total fire borrowing will top $700 million this year.
Fire borrowing is the practice of re-programming funds from other Forest Service programs mid-year, to cover wildfire fighting deficits. A prolonged drought, exacerbated by elevated temperatures due to climate change, has brought extremely dry conditions to most of the West, which has increased the severity and incidence of wildfires. More homes in the urban-forest interface and a history of aggressive wildfire suppression (which leaves too much flammable undergrowth) have also contributed to the incidence of dangerous wildfires.
According to the Forest Service, the very worst 1 percent of all wildfires account for 30 percent of the total funds spent on wildfire suppression. The net result of increased fire borrowing is a decrease in funding for forestry management programs that can help reduce the incidence of wildfires, such as forest thinning or controlled burning.
To halt the dangerous process of fire borrowing, both President Obama and Members of Congress have proposed the creation of a separate emergency disaster fund, to be administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This fund would address the very worst 1 percent of wildfires. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (H.R. 167 and S.235) has broad bipartisan support, and proponents say it would free up the Forest Service to do its job – manage forests.
Another proposed solution has passed the House, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015 (H.R. 2467). The bill would block fire borrowing unless the Forest Service exceeded projected outlays, but allow the Forest Service to more expeditiously timber federal lands. Supporters, including the timber industry and a political coalition consisting primarily of Republicans, claim increased timbering in forests will make them less susceptible to forest fire. In a statement of administrative policy, the White House sharply opposed the bill, stating that it would "undermine collaborative forest restoration, environmental safeguards, and public participation."
Nevertheless, due to a packed legislative calendar, it is unlikely any permanent solution will make the Congressional ‘to-do’ list before the end of the fiscal year.
For more information see:
The Forest Service just had to divert another $250 million to fight wildfires, The Washington Post