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.