Cost of fighting wildfires expected to exceed available funds

The federal government expects to fall $470 million short of the funding it needs to fight wildfires this year, according to official projections.

The Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service said in a report to Congress this week that they expect to spend an estimated $1.8 billion fighting wildfires, compared to $1.4 billion that lawmakers gave them for that purpose.


(David McNew/Reuters)

Robert Bonnie, the undersecretary for natural resources and environment with the Department of Agriculture, said the Forest Service will have to borrow money from other areas, such as forest restoration and recreation, if the expected shortfall occurs.

The departments have resorted to “fire borrowing,” or diverting funds from other programs to pay for firefighting efforts, during seven of the last 12 years, according to officials.

The report cited drought conditions in California and throughout the West as factors that could lead to an especially dangerous fire season in 2014. Last year, 34 wildland firefighters died in the line of duty as flames burned 4.1 million acres and destroyed more than 1,000 homes, the agencies said.

One of the most extreme examples occurred in Arizona, where 19 elite firefighters died while battling a blaze roughly 100 miles from Phoenix.

President Obama’s 2015 budget proposes changing how the federal government pays for subduing the most severe wildfires. The plan would allow the Departments of Interior and Agriculture to tap a special disaster-relief account when the costs exceeds their annual budgets.

“The president’s budget proposal would provide a commonsense framework that gives the flexibility to accommodate peak fire seasons — but not at the cost of other Interior or Forest Service missions, or by adding to the deficit,” said Rhea Suh, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary of policy, management and budget.

A group of lawmakers has proposed bipartisan legislation that tracks with Obama’s request. The sponsors of the measures include Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Reps. Mikes Simpson (R-Idaho) and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.).

The length of a fire season has increased by 60-80 days over the last three decades, with the annual amount of burned acreage more than doubling to over 7 million acres during that time, the report said.

FLAME Forecast Report.pdf

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Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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