The Trump administration showed opposition to a bill, approved by the House, that will reshape how the government responds to wildfires, specifically, a new act would allow a request for a “major disaster” after a wildfire.
For years, the Forest Service has taken issue with the funding process for fighting fires, noting the increasingly large portion of the budget going towards those efforts. Fire Containment now makes up 57% of the Forest Service’s budget. By contrast, it was just 16% in FY1995.
The 2017 Resilient Federal Forests Act would create a new procedure where USDA or Interior Department could request a “major disaster” after a wildfire, and the president could then approve.
Currently, firefighting efforts take funds reserved for other functions such as fire prevention and forest management; a process known as “fire borrowing”. This bill would aim to put an end to this. It would prohibit the transfer of funds between fire suppression accounts.
The Obama administration proposed a similar idea, however, those changes never gained traction.
While the White House agreed with some aspects of the bill, it objected to the proposal of reshaping the Stafford Act—a 1988 law governing emergency disaster spending.
“The problem of ‘fire borrowing’ should be dealt with in a ‘comprehensive manner rather than through a funding only approach,’” the Office of Management and Budget said in a statement. They also said, “The House bill would force competition for funding between wildfires on federal land and other disasters already covered by the Stafford Act, including hurricanes.”
OMB acknowledged the current system “impedes the mission of our land management agencies” but said lawmakers should instead focus on creating an annual cap adjustment for wildfire suppression operations. “As we have seen in this year’s historic Atlantic hurricane season, the Federal Emergency Management Agency must continue to be focused on its existing mission and the Stafford Act’s Disaster Relief Fund must remain dedicated solely to that mission,” OMB said.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) said the new emergency declaration procedure would be too cumbersome to keep up with the pace at which new fires develop. “During a busy fire season, when many fires can burn simultaneously, federal agencies will have to cease operations while the White House processes paperwork. A real budget fix would ensure that funds are available in advance of an emergency, not on an ad hoc case-by-case basis,” he said.
He also added the funds would be too difficult to access because the bill would only enable USDA and Interior to use them once Congress appropriated and the departments exceeded the 10-year average appropriation on suppression. Instead, he supports the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, sponsored by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID). This Act would make disaster funding available when firefighting agencies spend 70% of their rolling 10-year averages.
Executive director at Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, Andy Stahl, said the agency’s problems come in spending priorities, not adequate funding. “What this bill would have done is given the Forest Service another blank check. The fact of the matter is it doesn’t matter how much the Forest Service spends fighting fires, it cannot win this war,” he said.
Stahl suggested that the agency shift it’s funding to prevention efforts instead of boosting post-hoc suppression efforts.
He said that if the government had spent “an ounce” of money in prevention efforts in the areas of northern California, he thinks thousands of homes could’ve been saved. “Once the fire is burning literally out of control, it is by definition out of control. And you cannot stop it,” Stahl, a former firefighter at the Forest Service, said.
The bill has moved to the Senate now where Democrats think it will die.