Monday, July 28, 2014

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014

Update: On August 1st we learned that a key Senate subcommittee included legislative language to enact the Wildland Disaster Funding Act, as well as language to access the disaster cap on an emergency basis to address suppression in FY15. This means that the key provisions of the WDFA could be included in the Senate version of the spending package that funds the main wildfire fighting agencies, USFS and BLM. In the meantime, the Associated Press reported on August 5th that the Forest Service will have to put about $400 to $500 million in projects on hold due to the escalating costs of this summer's fire season.

Editor's note: We would like to thank Senator Crapo, Senator Risch, Congressman Simpson, and Congressman Labrador for their support of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014 (H.R. 3992, S. 1875).

by Bas Hargrove, senior policy representative

Two weeks ago, the wildfire smoke rolled into Boise for the first time this year in what seems to have become an annual rite of summer. Even though said our air quality was fine for healthy people to be active outdoors, I could feel the smoke in my eyes and throat on my bike to work.

So it seems timely to talk about the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014. It’s a bill in Congress right now that is a big priority for The Nature Conservancy nationally and here in Idaho. Not only do all four members of our delegation support the legislation, but Senator Crapo and Representative Simpson are lead sponsors. It’s a bill that will change the way the federal government pays for, and prepares for, the annual wildfire season. Even better, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office found that the bill will not increase spending.

Simply put, the legislation would fund emergency wildfires like other national emergencies, ensuring that forest and conservation programs are not raided when firefighting funds are depleted.

How does the federal government pay for addressing disasters like hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes? There’s an agency called the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with access to a disaster relief fund set aside just for catastrophes. We don’t know when or where these floods, hurricanes, or tornadoes will hit, but there’s a law in place that allows FEMA to tap special funds to help deal with these disasters.

What about paying for catastrophic wildfires? Congress gives the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) an annual firefighting budget based on the 10-year average of suppression costs. Sounds reasonable right? Well, what happens when we have a “big” fire year and the costs start piling on?  Do you smell smoke? That’s the scent of the Forest Service and BLM burning through their non-firefighting budgets, meant to pay for things like preventing future catastrophic fires.

When they go over the suppression budget, USFS and BLM have to start “borrowing” money from that year’s non-firefighting accounts for things like preventing hazardous fuel buildup around houses in the wildland urban interface. Because the intensity and cost of wildfires has risen dramatically, this borrowing has happened 8 of the last 10 years. Robbing these accounts year after year means that important forest management projects don’t get done, leaving unhealthy forests that are more susceptible to expensive catastrophic wildfires.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would treat catastrophic wildfires like other natural disasters and make catastrophic wildfire suppression eligible for similar disaster funding. Under the bill, routine wildland firefighting costs, which make up about 70% of the cost of wildfire suppression, would continue to be funded through the normal appropriations process. The true emergency fire events, which represent about 1% of wildland fires but make up 30% of costs, would be treated like similar natural disasters and funded through disaster programs.

This is a good bill that the Conservancy will continue to work on, and that hopefully Congress will see fit to pass. In the meantime, we can only hope that this year’s firefighting costs don’t spread out of control and burn through the rest of the budget for taking care of our public lands.


Ken Miracle said...

Thanks from me and the Sage Grouse for supporting this and for thanking the congressional delegation.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Bas! And thanks to the Idaho congressional delegation for leading the way on this issue.