Nonsensical approach increases wildfire costs

The following letter was sent last week to Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Burwell, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, by a bipartisan group of senators including Colorado Sen. Tom Udall.

Dear Director Burwell, Secretary Vilsack, and Secretary Jewell:

We write to request an action plan regarding the current budget framework for fire suppression and prevention activities and what can be done to move forward to ensure both suppression and prevention are adequately funded in future budgets. In a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing earlier this month on wildland fire management, it was clear that the current approach is unacceptable.

Federal fire program budgets, wildfire frequency and intensity, and associated losses have been a concern for many years. Because the Administration’s annual budget requests to Congress propose to fund the increasing 10-year rolling average for wildland fire suppression costs within the current funding level of the Forest Service and Department of the Interior’s discretionary appropriations, increases in suppression expenditures have caused significant decreases in funding for the non-fire programs, including those that keep wildfire suppression costs down, such as hazardous fuel reduction, cost-share programs for the acquisition of fire apparatus with local partner agencies, and assistance for community wildfire planning. This shift in funding to fire suppression has taken a toll on the agencies’ budgets. Just 10 years ago, fighting fires accounted for 13 percent of the Forest Service budget; last year it was over 40 percent.

In a time when fire activity and costs are steadily rising, the 10-year rolling average budget formula that the agencies have used to set the annual budget request for suppression expenditures has translated into shortfalls in available suppression funds nearly every year since the mid-1990s. When the budgeted amount is insufficient, the agency continues to suppress fires by reallocating funds form other non-fire programs. This practice is called fire borrowing. This approach to paying for firefighting is nonsensical and further increases wildland fire costs.

The Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act was enacted in 2009 to address these very issues. The FLAME Act authorized the establishment of two reserve accounts to provide additional suppression funds for large, emergency wildfire incidents, above and beyond the 10-year average annual suppression expenditures. In addition, any balances remaining in the FLAME accounts were to carry over into future years so that funds would be available for the inevitable high-cost years and not have to be borrowed from other program accounts.

Despite Congressional intent, OMB has forced the agencies to implement the FLAME Act in a manner that makes it ineffective: Instead of funding the FLAME account in addition to the 10-year average cost of suppression, the account is funded as part of the 10-year average cost of suppression. Although authorized, no additional funding has been requested for the FLAME reserve accounts above the 10-year average cost of suppression. Thus, fire borrowing has continued to occur.

We are also concerned about the dramatic cuts to hazardous fuels treatments proposed in the president’s FY2014 budget request. For example, the Forest Service treated 1.87 acres for hazardous fuels in FY2012 but expects to treat only 685,000 acres in FY2014. Our understanding is that these cuts were based on OMB’s continued skepticism about the efficacy of hazardous fuels treatment. We wholeheartedly disagree with OMB on this point.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Ron Wyden (D-Oregon)

Chairman

Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)

Ranking Member

Energy and Natural Resources Committee

Mark Udall (D-Colorado)

United States Senator

James Risch (R-Idaho)

United States Senator

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