On January 6, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack discussed the 2015 wildfire season, the most destructive season on record.  During his remarks, Vilsack discussed a December announcement that the agency would halt the practice of fire-borrowing, or re-appropriating Forest Service funds mid-year to wildfire suppression. The move ramps up the years long tug-of-war between the Obama administration and Congress to find an appropriate solution to the growing issue of wildfire funding.

Wildfire severity and incidence have increased due to many reasons: over-grown federal forests from decades of fire suppression, a growing number of homes in the urban-wild interface, increased surface temperatures, and a historic drought. Wildfire seasons have been overall worsening for the past decade, but with only stop-gap measures to address budgetary shortfalls.

Vilsack laid the blame for the funding situation on Congress. In Wednesday’s address, he stated “Congress must fix the fire budget to stop an ever-increasing amount of the operating budget going to fire suppression. Failing to do so will result in more deadly and devastating fires in the future.”

In mid-December, Vilsack wrote to several members of Congress to announce that the agency will no longer authorize fire transfers. “If the amount Congress appropriated in FY 2016 is not sufficient to cover fire suppression costs,” the letter states, “Congress will need to appropriate additional funding on an emergency basis.”

Thanks to fire borrowing, the Forest Service is caught in a catch-22. Funds that would improve the health of forests are re-appropriated to deal with wildfires mid-year.  In 2015, more than 60 percent of the Forest Service’s budget was consumed by wildfire funding – up from 16 percent in 1995.  The Forest Service estimates that they are projected to spend 67 percent of agency funds on fire suppression and related activities by 2025.

Two pieces of legislation seek to address the wildfire issue, through very different means. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (H.R. 167 and S. 235), would create 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, which currently eat up about 30 percent of the total funds spent on wildfire suppression. WDFA has broad bipartisan support and is also supported by the White House.  Proponents say it would free up the Forest Service to do its job – manage forests.

The Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015 (H.R. 2467), passed the House along party lines, and is awaiting consideration by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. H.R. 2467 would block fire borrowing unless the Forest Service exceeded projected outlays, but allow the Forest Service to more expeditiously timber federal lands. Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) commented that “its irresponsible and a missed opportunity to only address funding issues without reform.”

Some claim that progress on the broadly supported WDFA bill is being held back by Republicans who back H.R. 2467 and want to restructure forestry management in favor of the timber industry.

It's likely that the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will develop a third option. While the omnibus did increase the wildfire funding, both committee chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and ranking member Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) refused to include a permanent fix to the wildfire funding issue in the omnibus, preferring a more open legislative process. 

Over the summer, Sen. Cantwell released a draft for a new bill, the Wildfire Management Act, a more sweeping measure than WDFA.  Leaders on the wildfire issue, including Senators Cantwell, Murkowski and Wyden (D-OR), have vowed to return to the wildfire issue early this year. 


For more information see:

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack Announces 2015 Wildfires Burned Record Acres, Urges Congress to Pass Wildfire Funding Fix, USDA 

Secretary Vilsack Letter to Congress, USDA 

Cantwell balks at method for fixing Forest Service budget, The Seattle Times

D.C. Politics Hurt Montana Wildland Firefighters, The Flathead Beacon