More money to fight wildfires, but no long-term budget fix

AP News
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Posted: Dec 17, 2015 6:43 PM

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Budget legislation headed toward approval by Congress includes an additional $610 million for the U.S. Forest Service to fight wildfires next year but no long-term fix to how the agency, year after year, has had to borrow money from other programs to keep up with the ever-growing cost of fighting fires.

The Forest Service spent a record $1.7 billion fighting fires this year. Firefighting now accounts for more than half of the agency's budget, up from 16 percent 20 years ago.

The Obama administration wants to address the Forest Service's firefighting budget shuffle by treating wildfires like other types of natural disasters for funding purposes. The proposal, however, didn't make it into the budget legislation the House and Senate plan to vote on Friday.

Paying for wildfires the same way the government responds to hurricanes and tornadoes needs more review, said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

One potential problem: A destructive tornado or hurricane is a single event, while a nasty fire season is series of events, some much worse than others. The tipping point at which federal disaster relief would be warranted for wildfires in any given year could be difficult to gauge.

"I believe the administration's proposal could set a bad precedent, prove unworkable, and fall short of its own goals," Murkowski said in a news release this week.

The budget legislation would provide $1.6 billion for firefighting, up from $1 billion in a season that killed seven firefighters and burned a near-record 15,000 square miles nationwide.

Including the Interior Department's budget, which covers the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the budget legislation includes a total of $2.1 billion for firefighting. That's $500 million more than the 10-year average.

Western lawmakers including Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., praised the measures for giving the Forest Service enough money so that it hopefully doesn't have to resort to borrowing next year.

But it's a Band-Aid solution that neglects programs that would make forests more resilient to fire, U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Robert Bonnie said Thursday.

"The challenge is that fire is squeezing out all the other work we need to do. Forest restoration, forest management, recreation, trails, research — all of that stuff," Bonnie said.

The problem is unlikely to go away as wildfire season lasts longer year after year, he said.

"Congress has to face up and solve this problem. Because if we don't, the Forest Service is going to become the fire service," Bonnie said.

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This story has been corrected to show that the legislation hasn't cleared Congress yet.