Wildfire funding change in the works

For years, the funds used to fight wildfires have come from the budgets of the Forest Service and Department of the Interior even when costs greatly exceed allocated funds. Last year, this meant reallocating $600 million from non-fire programs.

President Barack Obama hopes to change this with a proposal in his budget, which he previewed at a meeting with Western governors at the White House on Monday. His proposal, based on a Senate bill, would allow the largest fires in the country, about 1 percent, to receive funds from a special disaster account, like hurricanes and other relief efforts.

Firefighting budgets are based on the average cost of fighting fires for the past 10 years. However, these budgets have been underestimated for 8 out of the past 10 years. Federal fire-suppression costs reached nearly $2 billion in 2012, with the majority paid by the Forest Service.

This age of megafires has left the Forest Service struggling to pay for recreation, logging, science and everything else beside firefighting.

“This ends up costing us more in the long run,” Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said in a statement on Monday. “It’s a classic case of penny-wise and pound foolish. Today’s announcement addresses this issue by promoting a smarter, more sensible approach to dealing with wildfires that will save us money in the future.”

It is estimated that removing megafires from the regular budget, as proposed by Obama, could free up to $412 million for land management agencies to fund fire prevention.

Last year, the West Fork Complex of fires in southwest Colorado charred nearly 110,000 acres, ranking it as one of the largest fires in state history. On the Front Range, four fires since 2009 have set state records for destruction of homes.

Western lawmakers have been pushing for the change for a long time.

Udall, Wyden and other Western senators have been sharply critical of the White House, under both Obama and former President George Bush, for shifting money into fire fighting at the expense of forest health programs that could prevent wildfires.

In June 2013, Udall and three other senators complained about fire budgeting in a letter to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

“Just 10 years ago, fighting fires accounted for 13 percent of the Forest Service budget; last year, it was just over 40 percent,” the letter stated.

Obama’s proposal is based off of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2013, which was introduced in December and is co-sponsored by nine senators, including Udall and Bennet.

“I am proud the president listened to Colorado and supports adopting my wildfire-funding approach,” Udall said in a statement. “This strategy will ensure we fight today’s fires without undermining efforts to get ahead of tomorrow’s blazes, and I will continue to fight in Congress to enact this common-sense plan into law.”

Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, is supportive of states being able to access natural disaster resources for wildfires, but did not take a position on the specific proposal, according to Josh Green, his communications director. However, he stressed the importance of proactive forest management to “truly reduce the occurrence and severity of these fires” instead of reactive measures such as supression.

Obama is due to present his budget to Congress on March 4.

kfiegenbaum@durangoherald.com. Herald Denver correspondent Joe Hanel contributed to this report.