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Fight Brews Over Federal Wildfire Funding After Devastating Year

President Obama’s proposed budget, released this week, calls on legislators to allow the Forest Service to use disaster funds from FEMA to pay its firefighting tab.

California Wildfires
Firefighters create a firebreak near a home in Middletown, Calif., on Sunday, Sept. 13, 2015. Two of California's fastest-burning wildfires in decades overtook several Northern California towns, killing at least one person and destroying hundreds of homes and businesses. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
(TNS) - After the costliest of wildfire seasons ravaged the West last year, with three catastrophic blazes ripping through Lake County, the U.S. Forest Service may be headed for a showdown with Congress over how to cover the surging bill.

President Obama’s proposed budget, released this week, calls on legislators to allow the Forest Service to use disaster funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay its firefighting tab.

But under that proposal, the relief from FEMA would begin in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service, supports the idea but says the agency may need help sooner.

Vilsack told a group of California forest managers during a Bay Area visit last weekend that if the agency’s wildfire funding runs out this year, as it has in seven of the past 14 years, he won’t “raid” other department accounts to fill the gap and will demand Congress pony up.

“I’m not going to authorize the borrowing,” Vilsack said at the Forest Service office in Vallejo. “Every time we do it, we let (Congress) off the hook.”

Although the president submits the federal budget, Congress is in charge of financing it. With Obama leaving office next year and Vilsack’s appointment on the line, the agriculture secretary said it’s time to take a stand for the financial future of the Forest Service.

Last year, as a record 10.1 million acres burned nationwide, the Forest Service went $700 million over its $2.6 billion wildfire allocation, forcing it to divert funds from watershed protection, habitat restoration and recreation.

“It’s (money) for maintaining trails. It’s for maintaining roads. It’s for making forests places that your family wants to visit,” Vilsack told The Chronicle.

Forest Service officials worry that fire management will become even pricier and eat up more of the agency’s budget as the climate warms and development continues to infringe on the nation’s wildlands.

This fiscal year, fire accounted for nearly 65 percent of the Forest Service’s $5.1 billion budget. Twenty years ago, it was less than 20 percent.

The agency, which oversees 154 forests including nearly 20 in California, works with other federal and state offices to manage wildfires. However, the Forest Service’s firefighting apparatus is by far the largest.

The president’s proposal for funding the agency, which both Vilsack and the administration unsuccessfully pushed for last year, lays out a framework in which fire is treated like other natural disasters.

The Forest Service would be given slightly less money for fire management each year but would be allowed to tap federal disaster funds, commonly used for hurricanes and floods, to pay for the biggest conflagrations.

In the past, the idea has been thwarted, in part over concerns about other disasters losing funding and the Forest Service becoming less accountable.

This fiscal year, Congress recognized the Forest Service’s increasing costs for firefighting and boosted the agency’s wildfire funding to $3.2 billion. That means it would have to be a bad fire season for the agency to run out of money.

Still, it’s still less money than was needed last year.


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