Wildland fire suppression is a costly endeavor; everything—from air tankers to personnel and hand rakes to bulldozers—costs money. At $2.1 billion, last year was the costliest year ever when it comes to wildland fire suppression. In fact, federal wildland fire suppression has cost more than a billion dollars per year in 11 of the past 15 years. With such large costs on the table, it’s clear Congress must address how we fund wildland fire suppression and how we tackle the root causes behind these dangerous fires.
As a result of the ever-increasing costs of wildland fire suppression, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Interior (DOI) run out of fire-suppression funds most years and “fire-borrow,” or transfer money from nonsuppression accounts devoted to projects like hazardous-fuels mitigation. Members of the House and Senate, as well as the White House, have come up with several proposals to change the wildland-fire funding system.
Proposal I: Wildfire Disaster Funding Act
One of the first proposals was offered by Senators Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Representatives Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.). This proposal, known as the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (WDFA), would require Congress to appropriate to the USDA and DOI 70% of the 10-year average of wildland suppression costs.
Suppression costs above this amount would be funded from a discretionary budget-cap adjustment. The White House has also endorsed a nearly identical proposal in its budget each year.
Proposal II: FLAME Act Amendments
Shortly after WDFA was proposed, Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) offered the FLAME Act Amendments of 2015 (S. 508). This proposal would require Congress to fund 100% of the 10-year average, but then permit any additional suppression costs to be funded from a discretionary budget-cap adjustment.
However, before the cap adjustment could be used, Congress must also have funded hazardous-fuels mitigation programs at 50% or more of the amount appropriated for fire suppression at USDA and DOI. S. 508 also would ban fire borrowing.
Over the summer, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) proposed an idea that was a blend of WDFA and S. 508. Under this proposal, Congress would be required to fund 100% of the 10-year average before allowing additional suppression costs to be funded from a discretionary budget-cap adjustment.
Proposal IV: Resilient Federal Forests Act
In June, the House passed the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015, which would fully fund the 10-year average; however, any expenses above this level would be funded by a new account within the Disaster Relief Fund.
So, where are we now?
The White House is continuing to affirm its support of the WDFA, but Congress is continuing to debate all four proposals.
The leadership of the House, in particular Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), supports adoption of the funding mechanism contained in the Resilient Federal Forests Act.
The Senate, however, continues to consider all of the proposals, with a new proposal likely coming soon from Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.).
In February, the president released his proposed funding levels for wildland fire suppression accounts for fiscal year 2017. The president’s budget included a funding mechanism nearly identical to WDFA as well as the following dollar amounts:
|DOI Wildland Fire
|DOI Hazardous-Fuels Mitigation
|USDA Wildland Fire
|USDA Hazardous-Fuels Mitigation
|State Fire Assistance
|Volunteer Fire Assistance
With all of these proposals, the IAFC is continuing to urge Congress to adopt a solution that addresses both the immediate consequences and the root problems of the wildland fire problem. In addition to urging continued support for the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, the IAFC believes a successful funding reform proposal must accomplish the following goals:
- 100% funding of the rolling 10-year average
- Additional suppression costs funded through a discretionary budget-cap adjustment
- Requirement that all savings be directly reinvested in wildland-fire mitigation and preparedness programs
Each wildland fire underscores the need for Congress to not only address how the nation funds wildland-fire suppression but also to improve how we prepare for and mitigate the dangers of wildland fire.
As the issue continues to evolve, members of Congress need to hear from their local fire chiefs about the importance of adopting an effective solution that gives local, state and federal firefighters the tools they need. Log onto the IAFC’s government relations page to stay informed on this issue and find the resources you need to ask your members of Congress to support wildland-fire suppression efforts.