Salvaging the "Fire Service"


Lawmakers are trying, for a second time, to toss a lifeline to the Forest Service. Ballooning fire-fighting costs and constrictive Bush-era budgets have been squeezing the soul (read: expenses other than fire retardant, hoses and helicopters) out of the agency. But last week, 12 senators and five U.S. reps, most of them from western states, attempted to relieve some of the strain by reintroducing the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act to both branches of Congress.

The FLAME Act aims to establish a special fund devoted solely to the suppression costs of the country's most

heinous fires. Those are the blazes that escape "initial attack." They make up only one percent of yearly fires, but tend to consume more than 80 percent of the Forest Service's annual fire suppression budget. If it passes, the Act will be a big boon for the Forest Service which, since 1991, has seen fire expenses swell from 13 percent to more than 50 percent of its budget. When you recall that the latest George Bush actually shrank the Forest Service budget during his term in office -- from the $5.3 billion allocation he inherited from Clinton in 2001, to the $4.5 billion he approved in 2009 -- the plight of the agency becomes even more apparent. It's been forced to do more with less, and lately, most of what it's done has revolved around fire.

The FLAME Act made an appearance last year as well, but after being approved in the House, stalled out in a Senate committee. That may not have been such a bad thing, since under last year's bill the formula for filling the FLAME fund would have rested on a somewhat shaky calculation. The 2008 legislation called for FLAME appropriations to be based on the average cost of fire suppression over the previous ten years. But fires over the last handful of seasons have consistently proven larger and more expensive than expected, and appropriations based on ten-year averages have fallen short of the mark. In an attempt to fix the problem, the latest version of the FLAME Act calls for allocations to be based instead on a five-year average. 

If the Act passes, Congress will still have to appropriate the money to fill the FLAME fund. That's another hurdle, and a considerable one at that. However, the FLAME fund, or at least the concept that underpins it, seems to have the tacit support of the Obama administration. The President's recent budget request sets aside roughly $300 million for wild land fire suppression, in addition to the billions that will likely be allocated to the Forest Service for the same purpose. That chunk of money, like the FLAME fund, would not be drawn from the agency's stressed coffers. Maybe the current president understands that the largest fires are proving too big for agency budgets to tackle... or maybe, along with so many agency employees, he's just getting tired of hearing the Forest Service referred to as the "Fire Service."

Blank Checks
Andy Stahl
Andy Stahl
Apr 13, 2009 10:58 AM
In 1908 Congress gave the Forest Service's its first blank check for fighting fires. 16 USC 556d ("Advances of money under any appropriation for the Forest Service may be made to the Forest Service and by authority of the Secretary of Agriculture to chiefs of field parties for fighting forest fires in emergency cases . . . "). In the timber boom years following WWII, the Forest Service "borrowed" regularly from its off-budget timber-financed "trust" funds, e.g., K-V, to pay for fire fighting. Paying back the borrowed money was relatively easy from the 50s through the 1980s because 1) a wet western climate made big fire years rare; and, 2) timber revenues were climbing like southern California home prices before 2007.

Then the bubble burst. Forest protection laws passed in the 1970s were enforced (finally) and timber revenues from national forests plummeted over 90%. No longer could the FS borrow from its off-budget timber funds; it now had to raid its appropriated dollars to pay escalating firefighting expenses.

The FLAME Act seeks to do for firefighting what the Wall Street and other fiscal bail-outs seek for housing -- blow the balloon back up by restoring inflated housing prices.

Giving the Forest Service another blank check assures only that the check will be cashed. Real solutions depend upon reducing firefighting costs.