On May 5, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing, “on the Federal government’s role in wildfire management, the impact of fires on communities, and potential improvements to be made in fire operations.”  While the discussion centered on how forestry restoration practices such as thinning and controlled burns will help prevent severe forest fires, the conversation naturally returned to the practice of fire borrowing, or re-appropriating funds from other U.S. Forest Service (USFS) accounts to fight wildfires.

Lawmakers have been discussing this practice and potential solutions for more than a year.  Last April, President Obama announced the Wildland Fire Management Strategy, which proposed the creation of a separate disaster fund for wildfires, to be administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).  This fund would address the largest 1 percent of wildfires, which account for 30 percent of the USFS wildfire budget, freeing up funds for the US Forest Service to do the job they are best equipped to do -- proactive forest management such as controlled burns, forest restoration projects and thinning.

In the 113th Congress, passage of a bipartisan bill to fix the practice of fire borrowing and establish the separate disaster fund for the very worst wildfires seemed possible.  The Senate bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (S.1875) and the House companion bill (HR 3992) both had broad bipartisan support, but ultimately, language for the bill was narrowly excluded from the omnibus spending package.  In January, the bill was introduced by Senator Wyden (D-OR) and a group of bipartisan Senators; in the House, Rep. Simpson (R-ID) reintroduced the bill.  There is also currently an amendment, offered by Senators Wyden (D-OR) and Crapo (R-ID), in the FY 2016 budget to establish the fund.  

At the same time, 2015 is stacking up to be as bad, or worse, than 2014’s disastrous wildfire season, and fire borrowing will likely continue for some time.  US Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell painted a bleak picture of the 2015 wildfire trajectory, stating “We expect 2015 to continue the trend of above average fire activity … This year’s fire suppression costs … with a median estimate of $1.225 billion.”  According to Tidwell, last year saw 60,000 wildfires, which destroyed 3.5 million acres of forest, with most of the activity occurring in Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Arizona, Idaho and California. In addition to the damage to homes and communities, wildfires may also impact reservoirs.  

There continues to be resistance from some Members of Congress to the idea of re-allocating funding through FEMA for the worst wildfires, particularly the fact that these funds would not count towards the agency’s budget caps.  Senator Flake (R-AZ) stated, “paying for one disaster while furthering our current fiscal disaster doesn’t make sense.”  Committee chair Murkowski (R-AK), is not in favor of this approach, stating “It just can’t be a blank check approach to fighting the fires … it’s just not sustainable.” In the original request from the President’s budget, the funding mechanism would not contribute to the overall deficit.  In an interview, Senator Heinrich (D-NM) hoped that Senator Murkowski will eventually support the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, noting that wildfires are getting worse in Alaska.  Senator Murkowski has not yet offered her own bill, though the pressure to act will certainly increase as the wildfire season sets in. For the time being, waiting seems to be the preferred course of action.


For more information see:

Hearing to receive testimony on the Federal government’s role in wildfire management, the impact of fires on communities, and potential improvements to be made in fire operations, Senate Energy and Commerce Committee 

Congress considers treating wildfire like other natural disasters, High Country News

Feds will likely 'borrow' to combat wildfires, AZ Central 

Senate Energy Chair Landrieu Holds Budget Hearing on Wildfires, EESI