Obama budget would change wildfire fighting formula

February 26
A wildfire burns in the hills just north of the San Gabriel Valley community of Glendora, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. (Nick Ut/AP)
A wildfire burns in the hills just north of the San Gabriel Valley community of Glendora, Calif., on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. (Nick Ut/AP)

With the cost of wildfire suppression rising, President Obama told governors of some of the hardest hit states on Monday he will ask Congress to change the way the federal government pays for disaster response to the most severe fires.

At a meeting at the White House, Obama told governors his proposed budget, due out March 4, will include a measure to allow the Departments of Interior and Agriculture to tap a special disaster relief account when the costs of fighting wildfires exceeds their annual budgets.

The White House backs proposed legislation sponsored by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Reps. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) and Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) that would treat the most severe fires as extraordinary costs. Money to fight those fires would come from a Wildfire Suppression Cap Adjustment that would not be subject to discretionary budget caps, a White House official said in an e-mail.

The new account would only be used to fight the most extreme catastrophic fires, such as those that require an emergency response or threaten urban areas. Congress would still be asked to appropriate money for fire suppression, but in recent years fire costs have exceeded those budgets; the new proposal would allow fire fighting agencies to combat wildfires without taking money from accounts dedicated to other forest activity.

In 2012 and 2013, the White House said, Agriculture and Interior transferred more than $1 billion from accounts covering other programs to fight wildfires. In many cases, the money came out of budgets aimed at reducing future wildfires, like brush disposal and forest management.

In recent years, the most extreme 1 percent of all wildfires have consumed 30 percent of total fire suppression budgets. The government has spent about $1.4 billion per year over the last 10 years fighting fires. The Rim Fire, which burned hundreds of thousands of acres near Yosemite National Park in California last year, cost more than $100 million alone.

In the meeting with governors of Arizona, Oklahoma, Utah, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming and Nevada, Obama and several senior Cabinet officials said they would support Western states grappling with the increased severity and cost of fire suppression.

The changing climate has intensified wildfires in Western states in recent years. A three-year long drought has also heightened the risk, especially in states like California, where the average snowpack this year remains far below historical averages.

Rising temperatures have aided invasive pests like the mountain pine beetle in the Pacific Northwest and the goldspotted oak borer in Southern California, which turn living trees that could survive a fire into dead, dry, 20-foot tall matchsticks. Scientists hope this winter’s freezing temperatures have temporarily stemmed the spread of those bugs, though there is no way to be certain.

Human settlement is contributing to the danger. As suburban and exurban communities move into the Wildland Urban Interface, more wildfires are threatening man-made structures — which means state, federal and local agencies are having to deploy fire fighters on a more frequent basis.

In the past, “it was rare that you would have to deal with fire and structures,” said Randy Eardley, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management. “Nowadays, it’s the opposite. It’s rare to have a fire that doesn’t involve structures.”

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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Reid Wilson · February 26