Smoke and mirrors

Congress can’t seem to solve a big problem: how to pay for battling wildfires.

  • Residents watch as a helicopter drops its load of water in an attempt to save homes from the Mills Canyon wildfire in July in central Washington.

    Mike Bonnicksen/ The Wenatchee World


Central Washington is not where you want to be right now. As of mid-August, wildfires had killed one person and burned some 370 homes and nearly 400,000 acres — more than triple the average acres of recent years. Thunderstorms have brought some rain but also sparked new fires; as Gov. Jay Inslee put it, “We’re still very much at the mercy of the weather gods and wind and lightning.” Major fires were burning in Oregon and California, too.

Every year, the same story plays out somewhere in the West. The Forest Service allocates about 40 percent of its budget to firefighting, but in extreme years, that funding burns up by July or August, a month or more before fire season officially ends. Then the borrowing begins. Staffers call it “fire stealing” — taking money to fight fires from research, forest stewardship and recreation.

Congress is supposed to return that borrowed money, but even when it does, the work has already been disrupted. Ironically, funding is often yanked from projects that could help reduce the risk and intensity of wildfires. During 2012 and 2013, roughly $1 billion was pilfered, leaving the agency too broke to thin trees in the Verde watershed wildland-urban interface in Arizona, for example, or reduce hazardous fuels in California’s Tahoe National Forest.

Federal and state officials and policymakers agree that the current budgeting model, also used by the Department of Interior, is broken. And firefighting costs keep climbing: Wildfire season is two months longer than it used to be, and since the 1970s, the average acreage burned has increased five-fold. Plus, development keeps encroaching on forests, forcing firefighters to defend homes, an expensive —and dangerous — task.

“We haven’t talked to anyone who doesn’t acknowledge the idiocy of stealing money from the very programs that are supposed to prevent wildfires or mitigate their effects,” says Jim Ogsbury, executive director of the Western Governors’ Association. Fixing the problem, though, is another matter. “Fires are going north,” Inslee says, “but the funding is going south.”

The most promising remedy has stalled out in the House. The bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would treat the biggest wildfires like any other natural disaster (the same approach proposed by President Obama’s 2015 budget). When firefighting costs exceed 70 percent of the 10-year average, land-management agencies could tap a $2.7 billion federal disaster relief account, like FEMA does after hurricanes and earthquakes. That would enable agencies to fully fund existing programs, including those that reduce fire danger.

The Senate bill was introduced by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho; the House version, sponsored by Reps. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., has 60 Republican cosponsors and 71 Democratic cosponsors. More than 200 organizations have endorsed it, ranging from the American Farm Bureau Federation to the American Loggers Council, The Nature Conservancy, and even the National Rifle Association. Five Western governors sent letters supporting the bill, and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has urged its passage.

Yet, in a highly partisan Congress, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act has gone nowhere, apparently due mostly to opposition from two powerful House members: Budget Chair Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Natural Resources Chair Doc Hastings, R-Wash.

In July, Ryan sent his colleagues a letter stating that the bill would break the federal budget by increasing spending and deficits. Simpson and Schrader countered that their proposal doesn’t change total spending. (The Congressional Budget Office concurs, but notes that the bill could lead to greater spending in future years.)

Both Ryan and Hastings are pushing instead for Senate action on Hastings’ Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act, which the House passed last fall. It doesn’t address the fire-borrowing problem, but would purportedly reduce fire danger, and hence suppression costs, by expediting projects that remove fuel from forests, including grazing and logging. The Forest Service would have to designate “revenue” areas in national forests, and log at least half of each area. The bill would reduce environmental review and limit public comment on many projects, and make it much harder to file lawsuits. President Obama has said he would veto it.

Yet another approach is espoused by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who in July introduced a bill meant to reduce firefighting costs as well as end borrowing. It would fully fund estimated needs for fighting wildfires and allow agencies to also tap limited emergency dollars — as long as they spend at least half as much trying to prevent fires as they do putting them out. The bill doesn’t provide additional funding for such fuels treatment, though, so the Forest Service and Interior would have to pay for that at the expense of other programs, like recreation and wildlife, or contract with private companies.

Amid mounting frustration over the stalled Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, House Democrats in mid-July tried to force a vote with an unusual maneuver called a “discharge petition,” which would have required the signatures of each of them plus about 20 Republicans. The Hail Mary failed; no Republican would sign, even Rep. Simpson. “Discharge petitions are a tool of the minority party,” says Simpson spokeswoman Nikki Watts, “and are rarely, if ever, effective in actually passing legislation into law.”

In August, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warned Congress that the Forest Service’s $1.2 billion firefighting pot could be empty within a month and that $400 million to $500 million in other projects would have to be put on hold.  The Obama administration has proposed an emergency infusion of $615 million, since any legislative fix wouldn’t take effect until next year. But that request, bundled with a controversial immigration measure, hasn’t passed either chamber. 

So Congress went into August recess without action, and if the Northwest continues to burn, the Forest Service will have to “borrow” once more. On Aug. 15, the Western Governors’ Association sent an urgent letter to House and Senate leaders asking them to “resolve this burgeoning problem for the West without further delay.” Perhaps when the session resumes after Labor Day, representatives will decide to act. “There’s always the possibility that common sense will break through the ideological arguments,” says Inslee. “Especially if people in the House could stand next to a charred family home.” 

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