Wildfires Are National Disasters | Commentary

Posted September 23, 2015 at 9:03am

The 2015 wildfire season has been brutal. In mid-August the national wildland fire preparedness level was raised to the highest level and the National Interagency Fire Center mobilized active duty military personnel to fight wildfires for the first time in almost a decade. Millions of acres are burning in the drought-plagued West — more than twice as many as last year — and the Forest Service anticipates suppression costs will exceed the budget by nearly a half a billion dollars.

The severity of this fire season underscores the fact that our current wildfire suppression budget process simply does not work. Twenty years ago, wildfire suppression made up about 15 percent of the Forest Service budget. This year it is more than half. This means the Forest Service spends the majority of its time, funding and staff resources putting out fires instead of managing our nation’s public lands.

This situation has reached a crisis point. This is why we have introduced HR 167, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. The WDFA discards the old, broken model for wildfire suppression and replaces it with one that treats wildfires like the natural disasters they are.

Today wildfire suppression funding is based primarily on an historical average of suppression costs over the past 10 years. The 10-year average funding model worked when the cost of wildfire suppression was relatively stable. But wildfire suppression costs have steadily grown over the past two decades. Drought, invasive vegetation and increasing development near wildland areas increase the risk of catastrophic fires. Fire season is longer, fires are more severe and suppression is more costly — and these trends are expected to continue. And because suppression costs now routinely exceed the budget, agencies are continually forced to transfer funding from non-fire projects to pay them.

Our current path only leads to bigger, more expensive and more devastating fires. The WDFA changes directions by treating catastrophic wildfires like other natural disasters. It continues to use the 10-year average funding model where it works — for routine wildfire suppression costs — but it makes those few but very expensive emergency fires eligible for the same disaster spending cap adjustment as other natural disasters. Catastrophic fires represent only about 1 percent of all wildland fires but make up 30 percent of the costs.

The WDFA allows us to finally budget responsibly for wildfire suppression in a way that ultimately decreases firefighting costs by mitigating fire risk. It restores the Forest Service’s ability to effectively manage our forests, and with proper management forests will be more resilient to catastrophic fire, disease and other threats. And ending the destructive cycle of fire borrowing means that land management agencies will be more accountable to Congress’ direction.

The fires we experience out West are just as devastating as the hurricanes and tornadoes that strike the East Coast and Midwest and they should be funded as such. Westerners have been suffering from this fairness issue and it’s high time that all states be treated the same — with equal access to disaster funding.

As wildfires continue to blaze, Congress has a responsibility to act. Today more than 130 members of Congress have cosponsored HR 167, and that number continues to grow. The bill is supported by a broad coalition of more than 300 organizations that all recognize the status quo is not sustainable. Fixing the wildfire budget is the critical first step in making our forests healthier and, ultimately, reducing the cost of wildfires in the future.

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, serves as chairman of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee and is vice chairman of the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee. Rep. Kurt Schrader is a Democrat from Oregon. Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., serves as chairman of the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., is the ranking member on the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee.