July | August 2017


 

 

 

 

 

 

Wildfires Increasingly Problematic for States

Jeff Stockdale, director of legislative affairs, CSG Washington, D.C., Office
Wildfires have been tearing across the western United States and Canada, forcing thousands of evacuations and destroying homes. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, a total of 36 fires in 11 states were burning across 1.1 million acres of land as of July 21, 2017. Over 67,000 wildfires burned more than 5.5 million acres of land in the U.S. in 2016. The occurrence, severity and expense of wildfires has grown over the past several decades, with today’s fire season 78 days longer on average than the 1970’s.
The federal government’s wildfire management responsibilities are primarily fulfilled by the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and the Department of the Interior, or DOI. The Forest Service’s budget dedicated to wildfires has grown from under 20 percent to more than 50 percent of the agency’s total budget. Overall, funding appropriated to the Forest Service and DOI for wildfire management has quadrupled since the 1990s.
Even with these increases in funding, the Forest Service and DOI have required more wildfire suppression funds than have been appropriated to them in all but three years since 2001. When their suppression funding is exhausted, the agencies are authorized to transfer funds from other accounts to pay for suppression activities, a practice known as fire borrowing.
As the increased incidences of wildfires continue to consume the agency’s budget, important funding that would otherwise support federal, state and private forests is reduced. In 2014, the Forest Service released a state-by-state report detailing the impact of fire borrowing. Important land management programs like forest thinning and timber removal, considered essential in preventing fires, suffer from fire borrowing.
Potentially compounding these issues, the Trump administration’s 2018 federal budget calls for a $300 million cut from the Forest Service’s wildfire fighting initiatives, and $50 million from wildfire prevention efforts. The proposed cuts are part of a $970 million total budget cut for the Forest Service.
The budget “is a recipe for more forest fires,” said U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, after a House Committee on Appropriations hearing on the Forest Service’s budget.
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a ranking Democrat on the House Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, reminded fellow members that there would be consequences if states had to bear the burden of Forest Service budget cuts.
“I’m disappointed that the administration has failed to pursue any proposals to reform the way we fund wildfire costs,” said McCollum. “The cost associated with fighting wild land fires continues to rise, and this budget illustrates how other important programs suffer when funding is diverted into fighting wildfires.”
Congress has struggled for years to come to a consensus on how the federal government should budget for wildfires, with many lawmakers from western states pushing to end the Forest Service’s fire borrowing.
Recently, U.S. Sens. Mike Crapo and Sherrod Brown proposed a solution to the issue that has gained wide support in Congress. Their proposal would treat wildfires like natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes, allowing the federal agencies to tap into disaster relief funds to cover suppression needs. The senators included the provision into a bill to reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program, which expires in September.
In the House, Reps. Mike Simpson and Kurt Schrader have introduced a similar proposal, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2017. The National Association of State Foresters, or NASF, a national nonprofit organization composed of the directors of state forestry agencies, praised the bill.
“This legislation supports critically needed changes to how federal wildfire suppression is paid for in the United States,” said Bill Crapser, Wyoming state forester and president of NASF. “State foresters know it’s always ‘wildfire season’ somewhere. So far this year, wildfires have scorched half a million more acres than at this time last year. It’s time to fix wildfire funding. We urge Congress to adopt this legislation, which will help state forestry agencies and their partners deliver on their missions to conserve, protect and enhance America’s forests.”
The National Emergency Management Association, or NEMA, a CSG affiliate and association of emergency management directors from the states, U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia, has major concerns with this approach to solving the wildfire suppression funding dilemma. The language relies on using funds from the Disaster Relief Allowable Adjustment, or “disaster cap,” that was created by the Budget Control Act of 2011. NEMA believes this approach puts state and local disaster relief funding at risk and could be the start of a slippery slope where various federal agencies look to FEMA and disaster spending mechanisms to fill holes in their budgets instead of to Congress to ensure adequate funding for critical functions. NEMA recently sent a letter to Speaker Paul Ryan and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi outlining their concerns.
With millions of acres currently burning in the West, the issue of providing adequate funding for fighting wildfires will remain a major issue for state and federal agencies.  CSG will continue to monitor the debate over proposed solutions to the challenge of providing the funding necessary to fight wildfires.