Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson and Oregon Congressman Kurt Schrader today introduced legislation to make common sense changes to the federal wildfire budget. H.R. 3992, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, aims to end the destructive cycle of robbing non-fire accounts in order to pay for wildfire suppression when costs exceed an agency's wildfire budget.
In recent years, Congress has budgeted for wildfire suppression by appropriating money according to the average cost for wildfires over the past ten years, known as the "ten-year average." When costs exceed an agency's fire budget, that agency is forced to borrow from non-fire accounts to pay for fire suppression. Robbing these accounts means that the Forest Service and other land management agencies have fewer resources available for forest management activities like hazardous fuels reduction that would prevent catastrophic fires. As a result, fires get worse and wildfire suppression costs end up devouring the agency's budget.
As fire seasons have grown longer and more destructive, fire borrowing has become regular practice instead of an extraordinary measure. In eight of the past ten years, the Forest Service has exceeded its wildfire suppression budget. At the same time, the proportion of the agency's budget devoted to wildland fire management has risen from 13% in the early 1990's to 41% in 2013.
"I have seen firsthand where good forest management practices, like removing hazardous fuels, have made the difference between a manageable fire and total devastation," said Simpson. "It costs less, both in taxpayer dollars and in lost lives and property, to prevent wildfires before they start than to fight them once they are out of control. Yet the way we currently budget for fire has created a devastating cycle of fire borrowing that is costing taxpayers and destroying our forests."
Simpson continued, "This is why Congressman Schrader and I introduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. This bill treats catastrophic wildfires like similar major natural disasters--such as floods and hurricanes--and ensures that money intended for managing public lands is actually used for that purpose. Changing the way we budget for fire will allow us to continue to fight fires without crippling our ability to prevent future fires from burning out of control."
"The current system is broken and it severely hinders the ability of our land management agencies from being able to provide the resources needed to properly manage our forests," said Congressman Schrader. "We must break this endless cycle of robbing Peter to pay Paul. By ensuring we have the annual funding that is necessary to properly manage our public lands, we can reduce fuel loads, improve forest health, and save money in the long by preventing the catastrophic fires we see every year. This is good for our forests and good for the taxpayer."
Routine wildland firefighting costs make up about 70% of the total cost of fire suppression. Under the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, these costs would be funded through the normal budgeting and appropriations process. The true emergency fire events, which represent about 1% of wildland fires but make up 30% of costs, would be treated like similar major natural disasters, such as floods and hurricanes, and funded under disaster programs.
H.R. 3992 is companion legislation to S. 1875, legislation authored by Senators Crapo and Wyden in the Senate.