We Didn’t Start the Fire, But We Will Suppress It

June 15th, 2018 by CHHS RAs

How The United States Government Is Taking Action Against Deadly Wildfires

By CHHS Extern Nicole Kulaga 

In 2020, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018’s new funding structure for wildfire suppression will take effect. This bill aims to correct serious flaws in the way wildfire prevention and treatment are paid for in the United States. After one of the worst fire seasons in the past decade, it was time to make a positive change- and Congress did exactly that. This Act creates a contingency fund that provides up to $2 billion yearly to fight wildfires.

Reports of the detrimental impact of wildfires plagued the newsstands in 2017. It left many wondering how to prevent this type of damage in the future. California, in particular, was devastated by their state’s deadliest wildfire in October of 2017 in which 43 individuals lost their lives, which exceeded the death toll from the 1933 Griffith Park fire which claimed 29 lives. In addition to its deadliest wildfire, California experienced its largest wildfire to date –the Thomas Fire in December 2017, which spread across 281,893 acres of land. These wildfires are increasing in intensity and new legislation is needed to combat the increasing costs to fight these fires.

Wildfires are becoming more destructive, and as a result, more costly. The US Forest Service (USFS) has historically run out of funds when trying to suppress wildfires. Under the current system, the USFS obtains funds from other non-fire accounts when they run out of money for treating wildfires.  In 2017, the costs for fire suppression exceeded $2 billion. Making things worse, the United States Department of Agriculture Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Overview indicated budget cuts to these agencies. Specifically, the overview states:

The 2018 Forest Service budget for discretionary appropriations is $4.73 billion, a decrease of $938 million below the 2017 annualized Continuing Resolution. It includes $1.75 billion for the management of National Forest System lands and $2.5 billion for Wildland Fire Management. […] In 2018, the Wildland Fire Management budget is $2.495 billion, a decrease of $708 million below the 2017 annualized Continuing Resolution funding level.

Many have called for changes to be made in the way wildfires are funded due to the reoccurring issue of the National Forest Service running out of funds. Specifically, this past September, the now Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, critiqued the existing funding structure of the US Forest Service. A press release by the US Department of Agriculture reported that, “Sonny Perdue […] called on Congress to address the way the U.S. Forest Service is funded so that the agency is not routinely borrowing money from prevention programs to combat ongoing wildfires.”  In response to the new funding structure, Perdue expressed approval stating,

The fire funding fix, which has been sought for decades, is an important inclusion in the omnibus spending bill and I commend Congress for addressing the issue. […] improving the way we fund wildfire suppression will help us better manage our forests. If we ensure that we have adequate resources for forest management, we can mitigate the frequency of wildfires and severity of future fire seasons.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act states that for wildfire suppression operations, the Wildland Fire Management accounts will be limited to a $2,250,000,000 year spending limitation for year 2020, with a steady increase over the years until fiscal year 2026, which has a $2,850,000,000 spending limitation. This new funding structure is a drastic change from the previous system. Previously, the Forrest Service would incur the costs and when they ran out of funds, would borrow the money elsewhere. The act resolves the issue of the Forrest Service running out of money by creating a new fund that is exclusively used for the purpose of wildfire suppression operations.

Some however, are not satisfied with the bill due to its limitations to fire suppression. It is argued that the funds should also be allocated toward prevention. The chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Rob Bishop, who voted against the Act, stating that, “It doesn’t solve the problem. Solving the problem is stopping the damn fires, not spending more money to put them out once they get started.”

Regardless of the limitations, the bill is a step in the right direction to handling the funding issues related to wildfires. Hopefully, the bipartisanship that produced the bill will continue and efforts will be made that will aid the prevention, not just the treatment, of future wildfires.

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