U.S. runs out of funds to battle wildfires

October 7, 2012

In the worst wildfire season on record, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service ran out of money to pay for firefighters, fire trucks and aircraft that dump retardant on monstrous flames.

So officials did about the only thing they could: take money from other forest management programs. But many of the programs were aimed at preventing giant fires in the first place, and raiding their budgets meant putting off the removal of dried brush and dead wood over vast stretches of land — the things that fuel eye-popping blazes, threatening property and lives.

Recently, Congress stepped in and reimbursed the Forest Service and the Interior Department, which plays a far lesser role in fighting fires, with $400 million from the 2013 Continuing Resolution, allowing fire prevention work to continue. Forestry experts at state agencies and environmental groups greeted it as good news.

But they also faulted Congress for providing at the start of the fiscal year only about half of the $1 billion dollars it actually cost to fight this year’s fires. They argued that the traditional method that members of an appropriations conference committee use to fund wildfire suppression — averaging the cost of fighting wildfires over the previous 10 years — is inadequate at a time when climate change is causing longer periods of dryness and drought, giving fires more fuel to burn and resulting in longer wildfire seasons.

Once running from June to September, the season has expanded over the past 10 years to include May and October. It was once rare to see 5 million cumulative acres burn, agriculture officials said. But some recent seasons have recorded millions more than that.

This year’s wildfire burn was nearly 8 million acres at the end of August, about the time that the budget allocated to fight them ran dry.

“They knew they were running out of money early on, in May,” said Chris Topik, director of North American Forest Restoration for the Nature Conservancy. “They were telling people in May, ‘Be careful, don’t spend too much [on prevention].’ ”

Over seven years starting in 2002, $2.2 billion was transferred from other accounts for fire suppression when the budget came up short, according to records provided by the Forest Service. Congress at times reimbursed a fraction of those funds.

“We did have to transfer the money,” said Jim Hubbard, deputy chief of state and private forestry for the Forest Service. “It disrupts work during the field season. It was not a major impact this season, but would have been if Congress didn’t restore it.”

A spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee said its chairman, Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), and members “believe that providing adequate funding for wildfire suppression is of the utmost importance. This is why they fought for hundreds of millions in funding in recent . . . legislation,” as well as in appropriations bills.

Staff members on the committee acknowledged that using the 10-year average cost of wildfire suppression to determine the budget is not ideal. The spokeswoman, Jennifer Hing, said the committee will continue to operate as it has.

Each year that money was removed from brush disposal and timber salvage programs, the Forest Service’s efforts to prevent fire fell “further and further behind,” said Jake Donnay, senior director of forestry for National Association of State Foresters. “Even with the appropriations they get, they’re not able to catch up. We’re thankful that Congress did act to repay them this time, but that hasn’t always been the case.”

Three years ago, Congress appeared to find a solution that satisfied all parties. It created the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement fund, or FLAME.

The premise was simple. In the few good fire years, when the Forest Service and Interior isn’t compelled to spend every penny appropriated to fight fires, the balance would go into the FLAME account to pay for suppression in seasons when things really heat up.

Congress allocated $415 million for FLAME’s first fiscal year, 2010 — a mild fire season, it turned out. As luck would have it, the following season also presented fewer fires, and a small budget surplus went into FLAME.

But in 2011, Congress went right in after it, taking at least $200 million from the fund and placing into the general treasury to use for other expenditures.

“It defeats the purpose of FLAME,” Topik, a former staff member for the House Appropriations Committee, said of the Forest Service. “It’s a peculiar history that this emergency activity is funded this way.”

Hubbard said Congress is doing its best in lean financial times, but the problem isn’t going away. “With all that’s facing us, how do we accommodate [record fires] with strained budgets?” he asked.

The nation’s ability to remove forest kindling and prevent fires from growing bigger and hotter is at stake, Topik said. A third of the nation is federally owned — vast stretches of grassland, vegetation and woodland.

National forests bustle with life, and a fair share of death — trees eaten by insects, scrub brush fried lifeless by the sun, old and diseased timber keeled over, awaiting lumberjacks and a date with a saw mill.

Or a lightning strike.

Fires started roaring early in Colorado and New Mexico after this year’s warm winter and dry spring, forcing the Forest Service to spend heavily from the $540 million Congress set aside to fight them.

At the height of the season, the agency was paying for 20,000 firefighters, dozens of fire engines, and a contracted aviation fleet.

Ninety-eight percent of wildfires are caught before they grow too far out of control, Hubbard said. But the other 2 percent are monsters that feed on uncleared brush and firefighting budgets — burns like the ones in Colorado and New Mexico, the biggest in their histories.

“We’re not going to stop these fires but we can make them less intense,” said Topik, who could see, as he flew over Arizona’s half-million acre Wallow burn this summer, that the flames stopped in areas where forest debris had been removed.

Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.
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