Escalating costs of fighting wildland fires – more than a billion dollars a year in recent years – are taking a toll on the budgets of the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior.
At a meeting with Western governors last week, President Barack Obama presented a plan to change the way the government pays for fighting the most destructive fires so that other important land management programs are not raided to pay for firefighting.
The plan would benefit Washington state, Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark said in a telephone interview.
“In the past, (the Forest Service) has been considering dipping into other funds needed for fuel reduction treatment or forest health projects,” he said.
Reluctance to tap other budgets may delay fire-suppression efforts, Goldmark said. The new system will ensure that spending doesn’t hurt normal forest health management activities that are also desperately needed, he said.
In the eastern Cascades, thinning out small trees and brush could significantly reduce fire risks and improve forest health – but doing that work on a large scale is very expensive.
Obama’s proposal incorporates into his budget request a bill introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.
Specifically, the plan is to treat the largest, most destructive fires as natural disasters – drawing on disaster funding such as that for after hurricanes or tornadoes.
Creating a separate emergency fire suppression fund could free $412 million for land management agencies to do fire prevention work, Wyden’s office said.