On June 8, Representatives Simpson (R-ID) and Schrader (D-OR), introduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2017 (H.R. 2862).  The bill would change the way the federal government pays for the worst wildfires – and end the damaging practice of fire borrowing – taking funds from non-fire activities mid-year to pay for fire suppression.  The effect has been shrinking and shifting budgets from management and recreation activities to wildfire suppression. In 2016, the total cost for fire suppression to the Federal Government topped out at $2 nearly billion.  With 100 million Americans now in the ‘wildland urban interface,’ the risks to property and lives from wildfires is ever greater.  In 2016, more than 3,000 homes and structures were destroyed by wildfires.

In the last two decades, fire suppression has ballooned from approximately 15 percent of the Forest Service’s budget to more than 50 percent of the overall budget. The reason is two-fold, climate change is causing hotter and drier conditions, and more people living in the wildland urban interface means more fires have to be suppressed.  The result is overstocked forests that are literal tinderboxes.

If nothing is done to address fire borrowing, fire suppression activities could balloon to 70 percent of the Forest Service’s total budget by 2025. The U.S. Forest Service, forestry, environmental and labor groups have been seeking the change for several years (EESI is a supporting member of the Partner Caucus on Fire Suppression Funding Solutions). The new bill attempts to address previous concerns from lawmakers that creating a separate disaster cap for wildfires is akin to writing the U.S. Forest Service a “blank check.”   The new bill would:

Fund 100 percent of the 2015 fire suppression level (as opposed to 70 percent), which freezes the 10-year average and stabilizes funding levels (a major concern of some lawmakers),
Fund wildfire suppression costs above the 10-year average out of a separate disaster cap,
Have the Forest Service report funding levels each year as well as provide budgetary forecasts, to better estimate funding needs.

According to Representative Simpson (R-ID), “I have seen the cost of wildfires in Idaho and the impacts it has on our forests when funds that are planned for forest management are used to fight wildfires… It is time to acknowledge that catastrophic wildfires should be funded like natural disasters so we can ensure that land managers have the resources they need to properly manage forests.”


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