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Federal Funding for Fighting Wildfires

posted Sep 1, 2014, 10:37 AM by Joe Christy

The funding for suppressing nearly all large wildland fires in the US comes from the Federal government, specifically the US Forest Service [USFS]. Even though our 2009 Lockheed Fire was fought on the ground and in the air by CAL FIRE and supporting fire agencies from around the California and neighboring states, most of the cost was reimbursed by federal taxpayers.

Here's the rub: in 1995, 17% of the USFS budget went to Wildland Fire Management; in 2014, Wildland Fire Management takes 51% of the USFS budget. The situation, though, is even worse. Since the turn of the century, fire suppression routinely over-runs the budget, and the hole is filled by “fire-borrowing”. Not only does money within the Wildland Fire Management category get shifted to fire suppression from fire prevention (which funds most of our landscape level projects through grants), but money is transferred from forest restoration and management, recreation, and research (among other areas, USFS funds most fire science research in the US). The impacts are detailed in two USFS reports: nationally at http://goo.gl/agnvxQ, and broken down by state at http://goo.gl/VqjLfl.

2013 was the the most expensive fire year in history. In response, President Obama proposed in January to allow USFS to draw up to $2.7 billion in 2014 to fight catastrophic fires from the roughly $1 trillion federal disaster fund that FEMA uses to respond to terrorist attacks, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, etc. In future years the amount will be adjusted to reflect the 10 year moving average of the costs of suppressing and recovering from catastrophic wildfires. 

How a Bill Becomes Law, or Not

In February, Senator Wyden (D-OR) introduced a bill implementing the proposal in the Senate, and Representative Simpson (R-ID) introduced a similar bill in the House. As per protocol, the bill was referred to the House Agriculture, Budget and Natural Resources Committees, where it languished. In mid-July Rep. Peters (D-CA) filed a motion to discharge the Committees from (not) considering the bill and bring it to a vote. Despite the bi-partisan support of 196 representatives, the petition did not reach the necessary 218 votes before the August recess.

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