As an update to our earlier article (below) on October 4, the Office of Management and Budget sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence (in his role as President of the U.S. Senate) requesting a total $29.3 billion in supplemental emergency appropriations to help with recovery efforts from the recent devastating hurricanes and to improve budgeting for firefighting activities. Of the total amount $576.5 million was requested for wildfire activities. This amount would prevent the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) from transferring funds from its non-fire accounts and from the Department of Interior. In the letter OMB Director Mulvaney noted, “The Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Forest Service (will) exhaust its entire 2017 wildland suppression budget authority in September.” The total annual wildland fire suppression budget authority is based on a 10-year average. Since 2002 the USFS has transferred funds from other federal non-fire accounts 13 times.
The USFS has already spent $2 billion this year on wildfires and the total is anticipated to reach $2.5 billion. This will be the most expensive fire season on record.
In his letter, OMB Director Mulvaney specified two caveats regarding the idea contained in S. 1842, The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2017, the bipartisan legislative fix that would end fire borrowing and allow USFS access to FEMA funding once it exceeded the 10-year average USFS fire suppression spending authority. Mulvaney said, “…additional funding alone will not reverse the worsening trend of catastrophic wildfires that threaten our forests, critical habitats, and communities that border public lands. (1) Active forest management and other reforms must be part of the solution to curb the cost and destruction of wildfires. (2) Any long-term funding solution must also be structured so that it does not degrade the Nation’s ability to respond to natural disasters, such as the recent hurricanes.”
Wildland fires have been raging throughout the nation for the past few years, and so has the policy debate in Washington over how to pay for extinguishing, controlling and preventing those fires.
The Challenge: Fire Costs From 16% to over 50% of Budget
In 1995, fire made up 16 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s annual appropriated budget. In 2015, fire is more than 50 percent of the Forest Service’s annual budget. One of the reasons for this increase is fire seasons are, on average, 78 days longer than they were in 1970 and, on average, the number of acres burned each year has doubled since 1980.
In mid-September U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that wildland fire suppression costs for this fiscal year exceeded $2 billion, making 2017 the most expensive year on record. This amount exceeded the $1.7 billion that Congress appropriated for fighting wildland fires. The $1.7 billion appropriated by Congress was based on a 10-year average cost of battling wildland fires. Thus, the U.S. Forest Service borrowed $300 million from other programs it administers, including some programs whose goals are to prevent fires. Congress eventually reimbursed the U.S. Forest Service by including $300 million in the recently passed hurricane relief and continuing appropriations bill (P.L. 115-56).
Secretary of Agriculture Perdue, Enough is Enough
Unfortunately, this has been the way in which the U.S. Forest Service has been forced to manage our nations wildland fires since 2002. In a recent USDA press release, Secretary Perdue said, “We end up having to hoard all of the money that is intended for fire prevention, because we’re afraid we’re going to need it to actually fight fires. It means we can’t do the prescribed burning, harvesting, or insect control to prevent leaving a fuel load in the forest for future fires to feed on. That’s wrong, and that’s no way to manage the Forest Service.” Secretary Perdue has had enough and he has called for Congress to remedy how the U.S. Forest Service funds fire suppression efforts.
Bipartisan Group of Senators Introduce Legislation
On September 19, a bipartisan group of Senators introduced S. 1842, The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2017. The legislation would treat wildfires as natural disasters and allow the federal government to access funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in a similar manner as they do for weather-related disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes. The funding would continue to use the 10-year cost average but agencies could access funds above that level if needed for the annual fire suppression budget. The goal of the legislation is to end fire borrowing.
As of October 5, the National Interagency Fire Center reports that 50,173 fires have burned 8.44 million acres. To date there are 8 active fires in three states including California, Nevada and Oregon.