By Congressman Mike Simpson
“In Idaho, we know the impacts of catastrophic wildfires firsthand. During fire season, many of us are impacted indirectly, and some have felt the heat of the flames as they have fought to protect their homes and livelihoods. As a lifelong Idahoan, I have seen where catastrophic fires have scorched the land so badly that nothing will grow. That’s why, as Chairman of the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, it’s easy for me to understand the value of providing land managers and firefighters with the resources they need to manage and put out fires.
“In the FY14 Interior and Environment Appropriations bill, I have ensured that fire suppression is fully funded at the 10-year fire suppression average. Wildfire has a tremendous impact on the budgets of the Forest Service and the BLM—for the Forest Service, wildfire-related costs make up more than half of the agency’s budget. Therefore, in a budget environment where we have had to cut or eliminate “good to do” and even “need to do” priorities in order to address critical human health and public safety priorities, wildfire funding quickly rises to the top of the list.
“My bill also includes funding for the Forest Service to acquire two new next generation heavy air tankers to replace its aging and increasingly obsolete fleet. Some of the air tankers used by the Forest Service are Korean War era planes, and the agency has been forced to ground a number of aircraft because of safety concerns. This bill takes the first steps to build a fire fighting fleet for the future.
“While I have seen the destructive impacts of catastrophic fires, I’ve also seen where proactively removing hazardous fuels from an area has made the difference between relatively minor damage to resources and property and complete destruction. Recognizing the value and cost effectiveness of preventing wildfires versus fighting them, my bill increases funding for hazardous fuels removal by $200 million for the Forest Service and $87 million for DOI. Failing to adequately fund the hazardous fuels account would virtually guarantee that the cost of wildfire suppression will continue to rise in the future. This bill will help us to get ahead of the problem as much as possible.
“Unfortunately, providing adequate funding for hazardous fuels removal cannot reduce the risk of catastrophic fire if that money never makes it to the ground. When fire costs exceed the agency’s fire budget, the agency is forced to borrow from hazardous fuels reduction and other accounts to pay for fire suppression. Robbing these accounts means that the Forest Service has fewer resources available for good forest management, and so fires get worse and wildfire suppression costs end up devouring the agency’s budget.
“While we do our best to predict the coming fire season and budget accordingly, we never know how bad a fire season will be until it is over. During last year’s severe fire season, firefighting costs were higher than anticipated and the Forest Service had to borrow a great deal of funding from other non-fire accounts after running out of wildfire suppression funding. My bill tries to get ahead of this problem by providing an additional $600 million in fire suppression funding in an effort to address fire-borrowing.
“These provisions have real impact on Idaho, and I’m disappointed that this bill was not voted out of Committee before the end of last month. I am hopeful that Congress will act quickly in order to ensure that land management agencies have the resources they need for fighting and preventing catastrophic wildfires this year.”