COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A years-long drought parching Western states and threatening to ignite a record fire season is spurring the Obama administration to revise the federal government’s approach to combating wildfires that threaten hundreds of millions of acres of Western land.
Obama and senior administration officials on Monday met by video conference from the Situation Room with governors of eight states, gathered here for the annual meeting of the Western Governors Association. The White House reviewed national drought estimates and fire projections with governors and promised to work with them once fire season gets under way.
“Fire is a priority for this administration,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told governors on Monday.
After a particularly bad fire season in 2013, agencies responsible for managing forest fires have taken steps to bolster their resources. The U.S. Forest Service has purchased the rights to eight large, next-generation air tankers, two of which arrived last week. The Defense Department is also supplying eight more large air tankers this year, and seven additional tankers next year.
The Obama administration has said climate change is causing increasingly severe fire seasons, which average 60 to 80 days longer than in past decades because of hotter temperatures and less snowpack. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter (R) said Monday the fires are an environmental risk, too: In 2013, fires in Otter’s state added 6 million tons of carbon to the atmosphere and 34 million tons of particulates, he said.
“It’s not just forest protection, it’s environmental protection, it’s water quality protection,” Otter said.
Officials in Washington and governors in Western states are worried that another dramatic fire season could further sap state and federal resources. The Interior Department and the U.S. Forest Service said last month they estimate exceeding their firefighting budget by as much as $1 billion this year. States must spend hundreds of millions to fight their own fires, some of which is reimbursed by the federal government.
The prognosis for this year isn’t much better. Kathryn Sullivan, the acting head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told governors at a roundtable meeting that the drought crippling the West is expected to expand south into parts of Texas that have been spared so far. Fire-prone states like Arizona and California experienced record heat from January to April, which limited snowpack and dried out land, she said.
Aside from fighting the fires that spring up now, federal and state agencies are looking toward long-term mitigation strategies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is helping 35 states address insect and disease threats to forests, which can turn healthy trees into matchsticks; a new $25 million USDA program will promote harvesting infected trees to use for energy production, removing them from danger zones.
The Bureau of Reclamation said Monday it would make nearly $18 million available for water and energy efficiency grants to 36 projects; last week, the Bureau awarded another $6.3 million in grants specifically to help California recover from historic drought conditions.
On Capitol Hill, the administration is also pushing Congress to adopt new budgetary rules that would remove forest-fire funding from the traditional budget process. Instead, major fires would be treated as disasters and funded the same way hurricanes, tornadoes and other calamities are treated.
Under current rules, when fire costs spiral out of control, the federal government has to dip into accounts set aside for long-term fire prevention, like fuel management, to pay for short-term containment and suppression costs.
“Because of the extent of fires that we’ve had in recent years, not only has the fire suppression been used up, but all the other money that’s been set aside for fuel mitigation has to be cannibalized to fight fire,” said South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R).
But some in Congress are leery of allocating money to fight fires separately, largely because of concerns that some of that money has been misspent in the past. A bipartisan group of senators back changing the funding process, but members of the House Budget Committee are standing in the way, several administration officials said.
Governors said it was the first time they had a president appear, even by video conference, at a Western Governors Association meeting. In February, governors from Western states met with Obama in the White House to discuss the upcoming fire season.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack participated from the White House, while Jewell joined governors at their annual meeting, the third consecutive WGA meeting she’s attended. Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Craig Fugate, White House homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco and senior counselor John D. Podesta also participated in the call.