Up in FLAME

by Evelyn Schlatter

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.

Meanwhile, 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.

Faeth says 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 shortfalls.

The author is an intern with High Country News. © High Country News