Wildfires need to be funded like the natural disasters they are, and Congress should allow the U.S. Forest Service to do its job by preventing wildfires, not merely reacting once they rage out of control. Legislation embraced by Republicans and Democrats wisely seeks to do just that.
The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, H.R. 2862, by Reps. Michael Simpson, R-Idaho, and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., addresses “fire borrowing,” a wrong-headed concept that buries the true cost of Western wildfires.
Under that system, the budget for putting out wildfires is based on the 10-year firefighting cost. When that cost is exceeded, as it has been in many years, funds for preventative measures, such as clearing brush, are used to pay for putting out fires.
With the Forest Service’s budget depleted, forests become unnaturally overgrown, ironically creating conditions that leads to worse wildfires. Congressional analysts note that in 2016, wildfire containment consumed 56 percent of the Forest Service’s budget, up from 16 percent in 1995. By 2025, that could increase to 70 percent if nothing changes.
Failing to address the issue is self-defeating. The money is still spent, but goes toward cleanup rather than prevention, with higher costs and, more importantly, greater damage to property and lives.
Last year, the Soberanes Fire raged across Big Sur for 82 days and cost $236 million to put out, the most expensive wildfire in U.S. history. That conflagration helped turn 2016 into the worst year on record for forest fires. As weather patterns shift because of climate change, the problem likely will get worse.
This is not the first time Congress has tried to bring the bill forward. A version was introduced in 2015 and again in 2016. Despite widespread support, the measures stalled. That shouldn’t happen again.
The current legislation quickly gained 61 co-sponsors, including 16 Californians, among them Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, and Jim Costa, D-Fresno. Numerous environmental organizations, foresters and recreation industry groups also are pushing for its passage.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein is supportive; Kamala Harris, whose spokesman says she supports the goals, should get engaged, too. President Donald Trump has proposed cutting $1 billion from the Forest Service budget, making this legislation more important than ever.
Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, who represents the fire-prone Sierra, is missing from the list of co-sponsors, as he has been in past years. That’s unfortunate. His alternative, the Resilient Federal Forest Act, has gained little traction. Environmental organizations oppose it, believing the legislation would lead to more logging on federal land with less oversight.
“Our forest managers, as hard as they have tried, simply cannot do their jobs effectively while arcane congressional budget rules divert funds needed for active management of our forests to combating wildfires,” Costa said in a statement.
The 2017 wildfire season will likely be worse than the last one. As we wrote last year, Congress can’t afford to continue to do nothing. Year-round fire seasons are the new normal, and the cost of battling them piecemeal is too great.
Failure to pass the bill in 2016 was irresponsible. Failure again would be beyond the pale.