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Washington Post: The Forest Service just had to divert another $250 million to fight wildfires

By Juliet Eilperin

Top administration officials wrote Congress on Tuesday to urge it–once again–to change the way it budgets for firefighting in light of the disastrous wildfire season in the western U.S.

The Agriculture Department just informed lawmakers this week that it will have to transfer $250 million to fighting the forest fires now raging, which brings this fiscal year’s emergency spending total to $700 million. Unlike other disaster spending, caused by tornadoes and hurricanes, the federal government must stay within existing budget constraints and divert money from other programs to pay for firefighting.

In a letter to 16 Senate and House members, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, and White House Office of Management and Budget director Shaun Donovan write that the current funding method is no longer sustainable. The administration has proposed allowing agencies to bust their discretionary budget caps when fire suppression exceeds 70 percent of the 10-year average, but Congress has yet to approve the budgeting change.

“With the dramatic growth in wildland fire over the last three decades and an expected doubling again by mid-century, it only makes sense that Congress begin treating catastrophic wildfire as the natural disaster that it is,” the three wrote.

The cost of the U.S. Forest Service’s wildfire suppression reached a record $243 million in a one-week period last month, and it now spends a record 52 percent of its budget to fighting wildfire. In 1995 it spent just 16 percent in 1995: By 2025 it projects that it will spend two-thirds of its budget on fire suppression.

The move comes as California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) has declared a state of emergency for Lake and Napa counties due to a severe wildlife in the area. The Valley Fire and Butte Fire, which are just two of more than 12 fires burning in the state right now, have destroyed more than 750 houses in less than a week and still threaten thousands more homes.

There are competing proposals on Capitol Hill aimed at addressing the current firefighting budget crunch. House Republicans passed a measure in July that would pay for additional fire suppression costs through a new disaster account under the Federal Emergency Management Administration. Under that bill, which got the support of 19 Democrats and all but one Republican, the administration could dip into the account when it was 30 days away from running out of money. But the measure also would speed the approval process for thinning projects in some instances from three years to six months, which has prompted resistance from many Democrats.

“Changing the way we pay for wildfire suppression is necessary, but it is only one small part of a much more serious land management crisis,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah) in a statement. “Unless the Administration and the Senate get serious about addressing both our forest management crisis and our budget challenge, we’ll be right back in the same situation next year.”

At the same time, Sens.  Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Reps. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) have introduced legislation along the lines of what the White House has proposed.

“Once again, catastrophic wildfires have destroyed homes, lives and livelihoods in Oregon and across the West, and once again the money to fight those fires has fallen short,” Wyden said in a statement. “Our bill will end the damaging practice of stealing from fire prevention and treat wildfires as the natural disasters they are.”

In order to pay for additional firefighting expenses, Agriculture and Interior have been diverting funds that ordinarily would go towards recreation, research, watershed protection, rangeland management, and forest restoration.

“The rising costs of fighting wildfires come at the expense of other programs that reduce the risk of catastrophic fires, increase the ability of our lands to recover from fire, and help protect communities and infrastructure,” Jewell said in a statement.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that while the Forest Service and Interior Department can suppress or manage 98 percent of fires with their allocated funds, the 1 to 2 percent of wildfires that rank as catastrophic megafires account for 30 percent or more of what the government’s actually spends each year on firefighting. 

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.