Rim Fire, photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service Incident Command
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is running out of money to fight wildfires in the fall and Congress is under increasing pressure to find extra funds quickly and provide a steady stream of cash for a long-term effort to prevent blazes before they start.
The Forest Service and the Department of Interior are close to exhausting their firefighting budgets though the fiscal year doesn't end until Sept. 30.
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told his staff in an Aug. 16 letter he'll transfer $600 million from other programs to the fire-suppression account to keep it funded for the fiscal year. He told his managers to defer contracts, reduce travel and to cut back on hiring.
Spokesman Larry Chambers said in an email that the Forest Service has spent $967 million on fire suppression this year and had about $50 million left when Tidwell decided to borrow from other accounts.
The Obama administration estimates that the Forest Service will spend about $1.36 billion this year to fight fires and the Interior Department will shell out $445 million. Those costs have been rising over the past few years as blazes increase in size and intensity.
A coalition of 90 conservation, business and goverment groups, led by the National Association of State Foresters, said in an Aug. 27 letter to House and Senate appropriations committees that the Interior Department also will have to soon tap into other accounts to pay its share of the firefighting costs.
"These transfers mean less forest management, road maintenance, lost jobs, among many more impacts, and long-term increased fire risk and costs," according to the letter. "Funds that should be used to proactively reduce hazardous forest conditions . . . are instead redirected towards predictable fire suppression expenses."
Jim Karels, head of the forester group's fire committee, said in an interview the government increases the potential for deadlier and costlier fires in the future each time it siphons money away from fire-prevention activities like removing dead trees and clearing dense underbrush.
"It's not new. It's not the first time. This one is pretty significant when you've got a full month in the fiscal year," said Karels, who is Florida's state forester.
He and other advocates say Congress should do two things soon after returning from the summer break on Sept. 9 -- provide emergency firefighting funds quickly and come up with a funding plan to ensure that the Forest Service and the Interior Department don't have to keep "fire borrowing" year after year.
Karels said the fire season, which lasts through November, appears to have peaked across much of the West -- except in drought-ridden California. But it's not over yet in the Great Lakes states and the Southeast, which typically see an uptick in fires during the fall, according to Karels.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, the fire risk will be high in September in the mountains of northwestern and southern California but below normal in Florida, southern Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. Southern California's mountains will remain at heightened risk for much of the rest of the season.
Congress should ideally provide enough money before the season starts, said Karels, the lead investigator into Arizona's Yarnell Hill blaze, which killed 19 firefighters in June.
"Once you get into the firefight, it's hard to all of a sudden materialize resources," he said.
Advocates say Congress must pump more money into reserve accounts maintained by the Forest Service and the Interior Department. Created by a 2009 law, these accounts were designed to eliminate the need to tap into non-fire accounts to pay firefighting bills. But lawmakers have consistently put too little money because the allocations are determined by an outdated formula, advocates say.
Though Congress is grappling with automatic spending cuts and is gearing up for another budget battle over raising the debt ceiling, lawmakers will likely find the money to continue fighting fires as they have in the past, predicted Alan Rowsome, an expert in federal lands at The Wilderness Society.
Getting them to put more money into the reserve funds will be more challenging, though that's crucial to ensure the long-term health of the nation's publicly owned wilderness, he said.
"Climate change tells us that the fire season is longer, it's hotter, and these sorts of years are going to continue. We need a long-term solution, not a Band-Aid. As long as Congress cannot effectively fund fire suppression we're going to fight this battle annually," Rowsome said. "Hopefully we can find a longer-term solution so that this isn't Groundhog Day year after year."
Gannett Washington Bureau