Obama’s budget changes wildfire funding

By Andrew Clevenger The Bulletin Published Mar 5, 2014 at 12:01AM

WASHINGTON — The 2015 budget unveiled by President Barack Obama on Tuesday would treat the largest wildfires as other natural disasters, with response funds previously set aside, so that money designated for other projects would not be used to fight fires.

Under the new policy, costs incurred fighting the most devastating wildfires — the top 1 percent of the largest fires consume 30 percent of the federal wildfire budget — would be paid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, much the same way the agency provides funds to deal with other natural disasters, such as hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes.

“It’s a new, improved budget framework to ensure we have adequate funding to suppress severe, catastrophic fires as the fire seasons continue to grow hotter and drier, longer and more expensive,” said Sally Jewell, secretary of the Interior, on a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

Federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, can handle the vast majority of fires within their budgets, she said.

“But there’s 1 percent of fires, like, for example, the Yosemite Rim fire last year, that truly are emergencies, that truly impact the communities in extraordinary ways. If we have emergency funding for something like a tornado that hits Joplin, Mo., why wouldn’t we have emergency funding for a forest fire that hits a community like those surrounding Yosemite?”

Under the current wildfire suppression plan, agencies project their annual fire costs by taking the average of the previous 10 years. Between 2004 and 2013, both the Department of Interior’s and the Forest Service’s wildfire costs exceeded the 10-year average seven times.

When those funds run out, agencies are forced to use funds allocated for other purposes. While Congress often backfills those accounts, work on other projects, such as hazardous fuels reduction intended to mitigate the damage caused by future fires, can be thrown off schedule.

In 2012, Interior’s fire suppression costs were 23 percent higher than the 10-year average, leaving the department to take funds from other accounts, including fire prevention, fuels management and restoration funds, said Deputy Interior Secretary Michael Connor.

The following year, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management had to redirect or borrow $650 million to cover their fire suppression costs, he said.

The new budget “allows for a balanced suppression and proactive fuels management and restoration programs with the flexibility to accommodate peak fire seasons, but not at the cost of other Interior missions, or by adding to the deficit,” he said.

Overall, the president’s proposed budget would increase the Interior Department’s 2015 funding to $11.9 billion, $275 million more than the previous year, an increase of 2.4 percent. But $240 million of the proposed increase is set aside for the emergency fire fund, Jewell said.

The administration’s budget request for the Forest Service includes $954 million for emergency wildfire suppression above the $708 million the administration projects it will cost to fight noncatastrophic fires.

“Wildfires continue to be larger and more difficult to suppress due to the effects of a changing climate, persistent drought and hazardous fuels conditions, and the increased size and complexity of housing developments adjacent to the wildland-urban interface,” the Department of Agriculture’s budget states.

The plan mirrors legislative proposals in Congress to restructure wildfire suppression funds, including a Senate bill by Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, both D-Ore., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. Oregon Reps. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, and Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, have both introduced similar legislation in the House.

Members of Oregon’s congressional delegation praised Obama’s inclusion of the revised approach toward wildfires in his new budget.

“The largest wildfires are natural disasters, no different from tornadoes or earthquakes,” said Wyden in a prepared statement. “For too long, Oregon forests have suffered from a failure to invest in fire prevention work that can create healthier stands and protect rural communities from catastrophic infernos. This plan finally puts federal policy on the right track.”

“We’ve been trapped in a vicious cycle of robbing fire prevention funds to pay for fires that are already burning,” added Merkley. “(The new budget) is a big step in breaking that cycle and ensuring we have the resources both to prevent wildfires and to fight them when they occur.”

In a prepared statement, Walden said that federal forest policy is broken, including how we budget for wildfires.

“I’m pleased that fixing our broken fire funding system has bipartisan support in the House, the Senate, and from the White House. Fixing this flawed funding method is a good first step, but we also need to fix federal forest management to prevent catastrophic wildfire, improve forest health and create jobs,” he said.

Last year’s Yosemite Rim fire, which burned more than 250,000 acres, cost $100 million to fight. In 2012, the Pole Creek Fire near Sisters consumed almost 27,000 acres in Deschutes National Forest, and cost $18 million to fight.

— Reporter: 202-662-7456, aclevenger@bendbulletin.com