Lawmakers need to fix wildfire funding

The OlympianMay 14, 2014 

Imagine a homeowner who doggedly budgets $1,400 per year for roof repairs, but consistently spends more than $2,500 fixing damage caused by falling branches. To balance the household budget, every year the homeowner shifts an additional $1,100 dollars from the family’s tree-trimming account.

Sounds like a broken household budgeting system.

Yet that’s exactly the nonsensical approach our federal government uses to budget for the cost of fighting wildfires.

The U.S. Forest Service told Congress last week that it currently predicts a $470 million shortfall in funding for wildfire suppression. That number will assuredly grow because it’s early in the wildfire season, and a large portion of the American West and South is tinder dry from a multi-year drought.

Last year, the USFS fell more than $600 million short. It missed by about a billion dollars in 2002. As of 2012, the wildfire budget had been underfunded eight out of the previous 10 years.

Like our fiscally challenged homeowner, every year the USFS must redirect funds from other programs, including fire prevention.

It makes no sense. Under current law, the USFS budget is based on a 10-year average. That almost guarantees an annual shortfall as the number and intensity of wildfires grows along with the costs to fight them.

The New York Times reports that federal agencies spent an average of $1.4 billion annually for fire suppression costs between 1991 and 1998. That number grew to an average $3.5 billion per year between 2002 and 2012 — a 250 percent increase.

Former President George W. Bush proposed funding changes, which President Barack Obama has endorsed, but Congress has not enacted them.

A new bipartisan U.S. Senate bill co-sponsored by an Idaho Republican and an Oregon Democrat takes a creative approached by proposing to treat major wildfires as natural disasters, such as hurricanes or tornadoes.

Removing just the largest 1 percent of wildfires from the USFS budget, and funding their suppression from federal disaster accounts would cover this year’s projected shortfall.

With global temperatures expected to rise and drought conditions continuing in Southwest states, we should anticipate larger wildfires and extended fire seasons.

It’s foolish not to budget for these inevitabilities.

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