Prospect of federal wildfire reform isn’t over yet

by Ashley Bach

The last-minute failure of Congress to pass timber reform and wildfire reform last month was well documented. Instead of passing legislation that would have increased the management of our federal forests and changed the way our country pays to fight wildfires, Congress passed a stop-gap increase of $600 million in the firefighting budget. No chump change, but the money does nothing to address the larger problems, namely that our federal forests are woefully undermanaged and that the Forest Service needs to find a new way to fund firefighting instead of raiding other parts of its budget (a practice known as “fire borrowing”).

What’s a bit of a surprise is the Obama Administration is still lobbying just weeks after Congress failed to take action. The first and most important goal – increasing the management of federal forests – is unfortunately being ignored for now, but the Department of Agriculture is still pushing for legislation that would change how the Forest Service fights wildfires. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would treat those wildfires like other natural disasters instead of forcing Forest Service to raid other parts of its budget to fight the fires. 

As Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said this week, the funding issue is more urgent than ever after the country endured a record wildfire year in 2015, burning 10.1 million acres.

“These fires have very real human costs, as we lost seven members of the Forest Service firefighting team in the line of duty, and 4,500 homes were lost. We take our job to protect the public seriously, and recently, the job has become increasingly difficult due to the effects of climate change, chronic droughts, and a constrained budget environment in Washington.Congress must fix the fire budget to stop an ever-increasing amount of the operating budget going to fire suppression. Failing to do so will result in more deadly and devastating fires in the future,” said Secretary Vilsack.

“While the news that more than 10 million acres burned is terrible, it’s not shocking and it is probable that records will continue to be broken. By August, the Forest Service had exhausted its firefighting forces and utilized nearly every piece of equipment devoted to saving lives and protecting property, exhausting the Forest Service’s budget for fire suppression and forcing the agency to begin transferring critical resources away from trail restoration, watershed management, hiring, and all other areas of its budget. 2015 would prove to be the most expensive fire season in our Department’s history, costing more than $2.6 billion on fire alone.”

The Walla Walla Union-Bulletin also weighed in recently, seeing the issue from one of the hardest-hit wildfire states in the country. The wildfire funding approved by Congress last month wasn’t nearly enough, the paper said

The shortsighted approach agreed to by congressional leaders seems to be rooted in an East Coast bias. Forest fires are out of sight, not in their congressional districts (or states) and therefore unimportant.

Ultimately we all, from coast to coast, pay the toll for wildfires. We pay in lives lost and property that’s destroyed. We also pay for the damage done to the environment.

If the federal government would fund fire fighting as it does battling other natural disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes, money would likely be available year after year to prevent future fires.

Perhaps if the federal budget was being debated in August rather than December, that would have occurred.

So for now, Congress is rolling the dice — hoping the number of forest fires in 2016 will be far less.

But without sustainable, long-term funding for fire prevention it’s certain these natural disasters — enormous wildfires — will occur again.

[This post originally appeared on the Washington Forest Protection Association website.]