Last year, over 6 million acres of wildlands burned in Western states. Since 2000, wildfires have burned larger and hotter than ever, thanks to drought and a century of fire suppression. And they’ve caused millions of dollars in damage as more people build homes in or near wildlands.
That’s left officials trying to figure out how to make more
money available to fight wildfires, and how best to use it. The
proposed FLAME Act (Federal Land Assistance, Management and
Enhancement Act) is one possible solution. The bill, introduced on
March 6, would create an additional source of permanent funding for
agencies to suppress catastrophic wildfires on public lands. The
money would be appropriated annually, based on the amount spent by
the Forest Service and Department of Interior to fight wildfires
over the previous five years. The bill also requires the
secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture to come up with a
cohesive management strategy for wildland fires, including risk
assessment for communities and fuel-reduction projects.
According to the Government Accountability Office, from 2001-2007
federal agencies appropriated nearly $3 billion every year to fight
wildland fires -- more than double what they needed each year from
1996-2000. The Forest Service now uses almost half its annual
budget to fight wildfires, compared to 20 percent during the 1990s,
says Lori Faeth, a senior policy advisor in Arizona Gov. Janet
Napolitano’s office. Napolitano, a Democrat, testified last
week before Congress in support of the FLAME Act on behalf of the
Western Governors’ Association, saying that the money spent
on putting out wildfires comes at the expense of funding for other
agency programs, including fire prevention.
To close the
funding gap, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and some of his
colleagues have sponsored the FLAME Act. “Currently, the bill
is waiting on a hearing,” says Natalie Luna, Rep.
Grijalva’s press secretary. “And anything that has to
do with resources and public lands generally brings questions about
how much it’s going to cost and where the money’s going
to come from.” Those are questions, she says, that the
bill’s supporters must still address.
federal agencies are gearing up for another expensive fire season.
Robyn Heffernan, a meteorologist with the Bureau of Land
Management, says that though snowpack across the West this past
winter was good, the increased moisture may actually contribute to
more grasses at low elevations, upping the risk of fire. And, she
notes, “We’re seeing hotter summers across the West
than we have over the prior 30” -- and one good year of
snowpack is not enough to undo that pattern.
that federal funding has been a problem for the agencies charged
with fighting wildfires and a separate fund for catastrophic fires
– as the FLAME Act proposes – will help with budget
The author is an intern with High