Be Prepared for a Summer Spike in Wildfires, Congress Warned

The plan would treat catastrophic wildfires like other natural disasters. True emergency fire events represent about 1 percent of wildland fires but consume about 30 percent of the Department of Interior’s suppression costs. Those fires would be treated like similar natural disasters and funded through disaster programs.

Routine wildland firefighting costs, which make up about 70 percent of the cost of wildfire suppression, would continue to be funded through the normal appropriations process.

“The reforms contained in these proposals are necessary and vital to ensure the Forest Service and the DOI are able to continue to deliver the full scope of their missions,” Tidwell said.

Transferring funds to cover the cost of wildfire suppression, he said, is “disruptive and harmful to other critical Forest Service and DOI programs and services, including efforts to reduce wildfire risk through mechanical thinning, prescribed fires and other means.”

Even in years when the Forest Service does not transfer funds from other programs, Tidwell said, the uncertainty created by the possibility of “fire transfer” means key projects, including those that contribute to forest health and hazardous fuels reduction, are put on hold in anticipation of a high wildfire activity year.

Lawmakers on both sides of the partisan divide agreed that changes are needed in the funding system. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), whose state has been hard hit of late, noted that the Forest Service and the Department of Interior have spent a combined $24 billion “just fighting the large wildfires.”

“We need to ensure that federal agencies have the money necessary to protect our communities and we need to treat wildfires differently in our budget,” Cantwell said.

The current 2015 budget will require fund transfers but Tidwell said the agency “will be able to sustain comparable levels of firefighting assets as we have in previous years.”

“We are able to leverage Call-When-Needed (CWN) aviation and ground based assets as the situation requires,” he said. “We also coordinate with other federal, state and local partners to maximize the utility of the community of assets to ensure we are able to respond when levels of fire activity increase.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the committee chairwoman, noted, “If there is one thing we can agree on in this committee, it's that we have to stop the fire borrowing.”

“We need a paradigm shift from fire control at all costs to actual fire management,” Murkowski said. “So it’s my hope that we can implement a wildfire policy that responsibly funds wildfire suppression needs, ends the unsustainable practice of fire borrowing, helps fire-wise our community.”

“…But if we do, I think we create fire-resilient landscapes in which wildfires can occur without such devastating consequences for our lands, our communities and our budgets.”