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Officials seek new funding channel for fighting wildfires

Thu., July 24, 2014, midnight

With nearly 1 million acres burned by wildfires across Washington and Oregon, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden is stumping for reforms in how the federal government pays for fighting fires.

Strapped federal agencies are tapping fire-prevention funds to pay for spiraling suppression costs, thwarting efforts to reduce the severity of future wildfires, said Wyden, D-Ore.

“When an inferno breaks out, the bureaucracy raids the prevention fund in order to get the money to fight the fire. Of course, that makes matters worse,” Wyden said Wednesday during a conference call with reporters.

He’s leading a bipartisan effort to use federal disaster money to pay for fighting the nation’s largest wildfires. About 1 percent of wildfires account for 30 percent of federal wildfire suppression costs. Using disaster funds to pay for those big fires could keep up to $400 million each year in Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management budgets for thinning trees, controlled burns and other fire prevention work, he said.

Drought, dense stands of trees and massive bark beetle outbreaks have increased how hot and how long wildfires burn. “This is urgent business for the West,” Wyden said.

U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, Idaho Republicans, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., are co-sponsors of the legislation, which the senators want to have added to the 2015 supplemental budget this fall.

Federal agencies also support the effort, said Jim Douglas, wildland fire director for the U.S. Department of the Interior. The change wouldn’t result in a net increase to the federal budget, because the disaster funds have enough money to absorb part of the firefighting costs, he said.

Federal agencies use a “rear-view mirror” approach for estimating wildfire costs, but the severity of the fires and the cost to contain them is increasing, Douglas said. As a result, the agencies have blown their firefighting budgets in seven of the past 12 years, diverting funds from other programs to pay for suppression, he said.

This year’s firefighting budget is no exception. Federal agencies expect to spend about $1.8 billion putting out fires this year, which is nearly $500 million over budget, Douglas said. Additional firefighting money has been requested in the 2015 supplemental budget.

Wednesday’s conference call was hosted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, which blamed the West’s longer, costlier fire seasons on a warming climate and rapid residential growth in high-risk fire areas.

Since 1970, temperatures in the 13 Western states have risen by nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit, said Jason Funk, senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. More precipitation is falling as rain instead of snow, resulting in drier forests and a two-month extension of the fire season, he said.

The proliferation of subdivisions and second homes at the forest’s edge adds to fire suppression costs, said Ray Rasker, executive director for Headwaters Economics, a research firm in Bozeman.

“It’s very popular to want to live somewhere where you have the national forest in your backyard,” Rasker said. But in Northern California, protecting private homes from wildfires can cost $400,000 to $600,000 per structure, his research indicates.

Requiring local governments to pay for part of wildfire suppression efforts would result in more thoughtful land-use decisions, reducing development in fire-prone areas, Rasker said.

“We need to find ways to direct future home development away from the more dangerous fire areas,” he said. “That’s a national conversation that’s just beginning.”

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