Wildfires are nonpartisan. But fixing the way the federal government pays for wildfires has taken more than a decade — and it’s not over yet.
Congress needs to bring an end to the practice of draining accounts to reduce fire danger to fight wildfire. The new budget bill veers in the right direction.
When there’s a wildfire on federal land, the federal government usually moves in to fight it, as long as it’s not in a wilderness area. But again and again, the Forest Service blows right through its wildfire budget. It then raids other parts of its budget to pay for wildfire costs. That means less money for everything else that the Forest Service does — including thinning, mowing and prescribed burns that can reduce fire danger and severity.
The raids on these funds are known as fire borrowing. The name has stuck, though nobody pays the money back.
The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have consistently underestimated wildfire costs. The problem was in full bloom more than 10 years ago. For instance, in 2003 the Deschutes National Forest cut its $34 million budget by $2.3 million to pay for wildfire costs. A 2004 federal report found that the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management underestimated wildfire costs by $1.8 billion over the last 5 years.
The problem has continued. So almost every year money that could have helped reduce the intensity of wildfires got burned up fighting them. Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Democrats, and Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican, have long argued that was ridiculous. They have pushed for changes.
The best idea would be to deal with wildfires the way that the federal government deals with other natural disasters. When a river floods or a hurricane hits the coast, it wouldn’t make sense to cut money to better prepare for them or reduce the damage. So why do that with wildfire? In the new budget bill, about $1 billion is set aside for the Forest Service to use when the fire season costs more than $1.3 billion, beginning in 2020.
Fire borrowing has been a loop-de-loop for the federal government. It’s been known about for years and kept coming back. So while the change in the budget bill is admirable, don’t be surprised to see fire borrowing coming round again.