Feds run out of money to battle wildfires
By The Washington Post
Published: Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012, 9:50 p.m.
WASHINGTON — In the worst wildfire season on record, the Department of Agriculture Forest Service ran out of money to pay for firefighters, firetrucks and aircraft that dump retardant on monstrous flames.
So officials did about the only thing they could: Take money from other forest management programs. But many of the programs were aimed at preventing giant fires in the first place, and raiding their budgets meant putting off the removal of dried brush and dead wood over vast stretches of land — the things that fuel eye-popping blazes, threatening property and lives.
Recently, Congress stepped in and reimbursed the Forest Service and the Interior Department, which plays a far lesser role in fighting fires, with $400 million from the 2013 continuing resolution, allowing fire prevention work to continue. Forestry experts at state agencies and environmental groups greeted the news.
But they also faulted Congress for providing at the start of the fiscal year only about half of the $1 billion it actually cost to fight this year's fires. They argued that the traditional method that members of an appropriations conference committee use to fund wildfire suppression —averaging the cost of fighting wildfires over the previous 10 years — is inadequate at a time when climate change is causing longer periods of dryness and drought, giving fires more fuel to burn and resulting in longer wildfire seasons.
Once running from June to September, the season has expanded over the past 10 years to include May and October. It was once rare for 5 million cumulative acres burn, agriculture officials said. But some recent seasons have recorded millions more than that.
This year's wildfire burn was nearly 8 million acres at the end of August, about the time that the budget allocated to fight them ran dry.
“They knew they were running out of money early on, in May,” said Chris Topik, director of North American Forest Restoration for the Nature Conservancy. “They were telling people in May, ‘Be careful, don't spend too much on prevention.'”
Over seven years starting in 2002, $2.2 billion was transferred from other accounts for fire suppression when the budget came up short, according to records provided by the Forest Service. Congress at times reimbursed a fraction of those funds.
“We did have to transfer the money,” said Jim Hubbard, deputy chief of state and private forestry for the Forest Service. “It disrupts work during the field season. It was not a major impact this season, but would have been if Congress didn't restore it.”
A spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee said its chairman, Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., and members “believe that providing adequate funding for wildfire suppression is of the utmost importance. This is why they fought for hundreds of millions in funding in recent ... legislation,” as well as in appropriations bills.
Staff members on the committee acknowledged that using the 10-year average cost of wildfire suppression to determine the budget is not ideal.
Each year that money was removed from brush disposal and timber salvage programs, the Forest Service's efforts to prevent fire fell “further and further behind,” said Jake Donnay, senior director of forestry for National Association of State Foresters.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- After bombs, Boston Marathon under tight security
- Shale oil, gas drilling boom wins favor with labor unions, thwarting environmentalists
- Teen OK after riding in wheel well of Hawaii jet
- Navy endorses 24-hour sleep cycle for sailors
- Postal Service overhaul expected to appeal to Dems
- Study of corn waste as fuel source finds gasoline less damaging to atmosphere
- Ruling on Cleveland police chase questioned
- Warnings on youths, codeine unheeded; lack of effectiveness, dangers had been raised
- Seafood study: Up to 32 percent imported to U.S. is caught illegally
- Space station receives Easter cargo delivery
- Wyoming officials to drill at landslide’s crest