Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson discussed the issue of fire borrowing during a House Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee hearing with Chief of the Forest Service, Tony Tooke this week. Specifically, Simpson emphasized the need to fund wildfires like other natural disasters.
“Solving the issue of fire borrowing has been one of my top legislative priorities in Congress,” said Simpson. “In Idaho and other western states, fire-borrowing has decimated the budgets of land management agencies and caused fire seasons to increase in severity and cost. If we can find a better way to budget for these catastrophic fires, we can improve our lands and our budget outlook.”
Currently, agencies like the Forest Service must borrow from non-fire accounts when fire suppression costs exceed the budget. “Fire borrowing” was intended to be an extraordinary measure, but as fire seasons have grown more destructive it has become common practice—and has created a devastating cycle that prevents agencies from doing needed hazardous fuels removal or timber harvests; ultimately leading to worse fires. To solve this issue, Congressman Simpson has introduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which would fund wildfires like other natural disasters.
During the hearing, Congressman Simpson asked Chief Tooke what the consequences would be if they didn’t address the rising costs of wildfire suppression funding.
“I’m hopeful we get this done this year. However, if we don’t address the 10 year average (mechanism used to predict annual wildfire suppression funding) that 55% (share of wildfire funding in Forest Service total budget) will continue to grow.”
Chief Tooke agreed saying, “Yes, according to our projections, even if we have a low to moderate fire years the next few years, the ten year average will grow by $500 million over the next five years.”
In 1995, the Forest Service spent 16% of their budget on wildfire suppression. Fiscal Year 2016 was 56% and it will be more than two-thirds by 2021. This means that the Forest Service spends the majority of its time, funding, and staff resources putting out fires instead of managing public lands.
The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act is supported by 89 bipartisan members of Congress and over 200 organizations.