Showdown looms between Vilsack, Congress over wildfire costs

AP News
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Posted: Dec 18, 2015 9:36 PM
Showdown looms between Vilsack, Congress over wildfire costs

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Federal budget brinkmanship could flare while wildfires are bearing down on U.S. communities after Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack vowed to end the practice of raiding other programs' funding to cover firefighting costs.

The U.S. Forest Service depleted its firefighting budget in August as the costliest fire season in U.S. history destroyed hundreds of homes in California and the Pacific Northwest. If money budgeted for firefighting runs out again next year, Congress will need to step in with emergency funding instead of expecting the Forest Service to fill the gap, Vilsack wrote congressional budget leaders Thursday.

"The American public can no longer afford delays to forest restoration and other critical Forest Service activities caused by annual fire transfers," he told the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate appropriations committees.

Next fire season would need to be a bad one, indeed, for firefighting funds to run out. The Forest Service is getting $1.6 billion for firefighting, up from $1 billion this past year, in the federal budget that cleared Congress on Friday.

Total money for wildland fire management will top the 10-year average by $593 million, said Chris Gallegos, spokesman for Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss.

Still, the Forest Service budget for firefighting will be less than the record $1.7 billion spent this past year as wildfires burned a near-record 15,000 square miles nationwide. The Forest Service spent more than half of its total budget on firefighting for the first time.

To keep firefighters fighting and air tankers flying, the Forest Service had to dip into other accounts, a routine that has become common as fire season has grown longer and more intense year after year. The agency has exceeded its firefighting budget six of the past 10 years.

Anticipating that it would run out of firefighting funds, the Forest Service has held back on programs not directly related to firefighting. It will stop doing that in the year ahead, USDA spokesman Matthew Herrick said.

Officials won't allow homes to burn while waiting on Congress to act, however.

"We will continue to protect lives, property and our natural resources, but it is the responsibility of Congress to ensure those resources are sufficient each year," Herrick said.

While glad to have a bigger firefighting budget, the Obama administration had sought a long-term fix by funding its response to wildfires like that of tornadoes, hurricanes and other natural disasters.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee decided against that approach, saying more review is needed to make sure it would work as intended.