Congress considers treating wildfire like other natural disasters

The proposal to use emergency funding faces a key obstacle: Sen. Murkowski.

 

As the West girds itself for what looks likely to be a fierce wildfire season, a bipartisan group of Western senators is pushing a bill to rethink the way the federal government pays to fight catastrophic fires. The idea is that the largest wildfires would be treated like natural disasters. As with big hurricanes or earthquakes, funding for them wouldn’t have to come from an agency’s regular budget.

As HCN has reported, for seven of the last 12 years, wildfires have been so costly that the Forest Service ran through its fire budget in late summer, long before the season was over and had to raid other programs to keep fighting fires. The problem is so well known it’s got its own nickname, “fire borrowing.”

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell warned a Senate committee this week that there’s a 90 percent chance his agency will have to do that again this year. The drought and low snowpack across much of the West contribute to the forecast for a bad fire season this year. Tidwell said that with global warming, fire seasons could be expected to be longer — 80 days longer than they were just 15 years ago — and fiercer.

Saying that it’s “past time to find a solution,” he reiterated his support for the bipartisan funding bill sponsored by Sen. Wyden, D-Oregon.

Despite growing support across both aisles for this approach, the initiative faces a major barrier  Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

As chairwoman of both the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee and the appropriations subcommittee that decides the Forest Service’s budget, Murkowski has broad authority over both the legislation and funding for the agency. And she’s skeptical about the Wyden bill.

“It just can’t be a blank check approach to fighting the fires,” Murkowski said during the hearing. “It’s just not sustainable.”

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, agreed that opening up disaster funds to use for wildfires could be too expensive. “Paying for one disaster while furthering our current fiscal disaster doesn’t make sense,” he added.

Flake, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, and Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, have introduced another bill that would require the Forest Service to forecast its firefighting costs annually. It also would ban federal agencies from raiding other programs to pay for fighting fires. The change is in how they budget, based on annual forecast rather than an average of the previous 10 years. Environmentalists oppose this bill because it also would open up more timber harvests.

Despite the opposition, supporters of the Wyden bill see a couple of ways to prevail. They could introduce it as an amendment to another bill. Or they could negotiate with Murkowski to include it in a bill she plans to draft that would fix some of the problems she sees with the way the Forest Service manages its vast holdings.

Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon told HCN that she is working with the sponsors of various firefighting bills to “find a path forward that responsibly funds wildfire suppression needs, while also addressing the problem of fire borrowing.”

A Democratic co-sponsor of the Wyden bill said he hopes Murkowski’s concerns about the impacts to Alaskans of unusually fierce wildfires will lead her to support that bill. “I don’t know exactly when that will happen but my experience with these things is when you start to reach a certain critical mass it gets harder and harder to hold them back,” Sen. Martin Heinrich told HCN.

Four Western Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors of the Wyden bill  Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo and Sen. James Risch, Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, and Montana Sen. Steve Daines. Daines said he’s doing everything he can to push the bill and hopes to get it through this year.

“We’ve got a great broad-spectrum agreement something has to change in the way wildfire is funded,” he said. 

More than 7 million acres of federal forest in his state are at high or very high risk of wildfire and need to be thinned and/or treated with prescribed burns, and yet the Forest Service thinned or prescribed fires on only 52,000 acres last year. Daines said the pace is far too slow to protect communities, wildlife and landscapes important for hunting, fishing and other recreation. “All of these critical Montana treasures are at real risk to wildfire,” he said. 

However, Murkowski and some other Western Republicans on the panel said the problem is that the Forest Service poorly manages its funds, overspending on fighting forest fires to the detriment of other priorities, such as arranging timber sales, thinning overgrown stands and setting prescribed fires to make forests less fire prone.

“It is looking more and more like the Forest Service is morphing into an emergency fire service,” Murkowski said.

One of the experts she invited to the hearing made the case that the Forest Service still tries to put out too many fires, which drives up costs.

“We must allow more fires to burn to promote healthy forests resilient to wildfires,” said Stephen Pyne, a professor of sustainability from Arizona State University. Pyne advocated that the agency focus more on prescribed fires and thinning to help forests return to their more natural state.

Although Murkowski has no schedule yet for drafting a bill, as fire season starts in earnest, the pressure to do so surely will increase.

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent. Homepage image courtesy Flickr user USFS Mountain-Prairie.