A bipartisan group of western Senators, including Sen. Jim Risch and Sen. Mike Crapo, have introduced an updated version of a bill meant to end the problem of “fire borrowing,” where federal land management agencies expend so much of their budgets fighting wildfires that they have little left over for their other tasks.
“The West is on fire, and it’s burning faster than years prior,” Risch said in a news release. “We need every resource available to prevent and combat the devastation caused by wildfires. This legislation would ensure those of us in the West can count on much-needed disaster funding.”
“More communities are put in danger and fire prevention work gets left undone because of a backwards fire budgeting system,” added Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the lead sponsor. “It’s past time for Congress to make it a top priority to end fire borrowing.”
Last week the Associated Press reported that the Forest Service has spent more than $2 billion battling forest fires around the country — a record as wildfires blacken the American West in one of the nation’s worst fire seasons.
Wildfires have burned nearly 13,000 square miles this year, the Associated Press reported.
The spending figure announced Sept. 14 marks the first time wildfire spending by the Forest Service has topped $2 billion, the Associated Press reported. The previous record was $1.7 billion in 2015.
The problem of fire borrowing stems from the unusual way western wildfire response is funded, which differs fundamentally from the way many other natural disasters, such as tornadoes and hurricanes, are funded. While most natural disasters are funded on an emergency basis based on their impact, wildfire fighting comes directly from the budgets of agencies including the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
The appropriation bill passed by the U.S. House setting wildfire budgets follows a long-standing trend: Funding wildfire costs based on the average firefighting cost over the last decade. But to wildfire experts, that funding level is part of the problem.
Year after year, fire seasons have grown longer and greater areas of the West have been affected.
In June, University of Idaho assistant professor Crystal Kolden, who focuses her studies on forest, rangeland and fire sciences, told the Post Register that throughout the region fire responders have said the same thing.
“I consistently hear, year after year, ‘We’ve never seen anything like this,’” she said.
Funding at the 10-year average will usually mean less funding than is needed, given that fire costs are consistently rising over time. As Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, noted when he introduced a similar bill three months ago, the Forest Service has gone from spending about 16 percent of its budget on fighting wildfires two decades ago to 56 percent last year.
Fire borrowing has the potential to make catastrophic wildfires more likely, since it has meant that the Forest Service, BLM and other agencies have had to take funds from other programs, including fire risk mitigation programs, to fund firefighting.
The Senate bill would address the shortfall by freezing in place the 10-year funding average and funding any costs above the average through the disaster funding mechanisms available for floods and hurricanes.
“With over eight million acres burned, 10 states choked with smoke, and lives and structures lost, this year’s fire season is a brutal reminder that we must start treating mega fires as the disasters that they are,” Crapo said in a release. “Now is the time to both recognize that fires are major disasters and end the destructive cycle of fire borrowing that only makes the fire situation in this country worse.”
Simpson reintroduced a similar House bill in June, but, despite winning 35 Democratic and 30 Republican cosponsors, it’s been stuck in committee for three months.
Another House Committee is expected to examine the problem of mounting catastrophic wildfires next week. The Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Committee on Natural Resources, on which Rep. Raúl Labrador serves, plans to hold hearings Sept. 27 to examine wildfire risk reduction measures and the health of national forests.