Money available without disaster declaration
By Marcy Stamper
A 50-percent increase in federal funds for firefighting — $1.6 billion — included in the budget signed by Pres. Obama has been hailed by lawmakers as “real money” and “a very good down payment.”
In addition, the Congressional budget extension, signed Dec. 18, includes $375 million for fuels reduction and grants to help local communities decrease fire hazards.
Bipartisan members of Congress from Western states that are still reeling from two of the most severe wildfire seasons in history say they hope the money will help eliminate the need for the U.S. Forest Service to borrow money from other functions, such as road and facilities maintenance, to fight catastrophic fires.
In the past 20 years, the amount of money spent fighting catastrophic fires has increased from 16 percent of the total Forest Service budget to 42 percent, according to a Forest Service study done last year. Meanwhile, all other programs have seen significant cuts.
“I think when you have a rain forest that catches on fire — or you have parts of Alaska that have never burned that are up in smoke — you bet this is of critical importance to… many Western states,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told fellow senators last week as they worked on the budget.
The money will be available without a disaster declaration and without a specific appropriations request, enabling states and local jurisdictions to plan for the upcoming wildfire season, said Cantwell.
Cantwell and some other lawmakers had urged the federal government to change the way it pays for wildfires so that fires would be treated like hurricanes and other natural disasters — handled and paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency — but that proposal was dropped from the budget extension.
Related issues still being debated include doing more controlled burning on federal lands, using research to improve mapping of high-risk areas to effectively target fire prevention, and reducing barriers so that firefighters and other personnel can work more smoothly across agencies during wildfires, according to Cantwell.
They are also looking at ways to make wider use of local firefighters and equipment operators by increasing opportunities for training and making it easier to sign up for firefighting. Upgrading emergency-communications systems is another priority, said Cantwell.
There are currently no allocations for these measures.
A provision for logging of up to 1 million acres nationwide was dropped from the bill. Groups such as Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics said it would have amounted to destructive logging with an inadequate process for public or environmental review, but some legislators argued the approach was necessary for forest health and economic growth.
Cantwell emphasized the need for “massive fuel reduction” but said clear-cutting would increase risks of erosion and landslides.
State and local jurisdictions also seek more money and changes to the approach to fire prevention and preparedness. The Washington Department of Natural Resources has asked the state Legislature for $24.3 million to equip and train more wildland firefighters. The money would also be used for forest health measures including fuels reduction.
The Legislature has not yet acted on the request.