WASHINGTON D.C. – The federal system for funding firefighting is broken but lawmakers are at a loggerhead over how to fix the problem. However, some in the House and Senate now hope that national coverage of Northern California’s devastating fires could finally push to a compromise.
The problem is the fact that forest fires are not treated like other natural disasters. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can tap emergency funds for hurricane or tornado response, the U.S. Forest Service should raid its other program budgets – including fire prevention – if it runs out of firefighting funds. That has become increasingly common in recent years, as fires have grown more intense.
Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho notes that the Forest Service spent over half of its budget last year on firefighting, compared to 16 percent in 1995. In effect, the Forest Service has been transformed from a “management agency to a firefighting agency,” Risch says. “It is not meant to be that way.”
In September, the federal government announced its firefighting costs have already surpassed $2 billion, well over the $1.7 billion in the Forest Services’ budget. That makes this the most expensive fire season ever – and that’s before the fires broke out in California.
“Those of us who live out West believe that these are catastrophes, natural catastrophes, just as much as a hurricane, a tornado or an earthquake,” says Risch. “And as such, there should be FEMA emergency spending that is used for this.”
Feinstein and California Sen. Kamala Harris also sent a letter to President Trump Tuesday urging him to support the budget fix, as well as other federal aid for those affected in the state. Eighteen members of the California delegation are co-sponsoring a House version of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act.
Each house passed a version of its approach as part of a 2015 spending bill, but neither made it into law due to the opposition in the other chamber. And both have similar problems this year. Opposition from House leaders like McCarthy, meanwhile, will make it hard to advance the Senate version there.
The problem with firefighters is increasing.
Advocates for the Senate bill say the inability to pay for sufficient prevention work – like clearing brush and dead trees – make fires increasingly severe.
“The challenge is that we really depend on the federal firefighting resources to come in and help us,” Pimlott said at a press conference in Sacramento, noting the U.S. Forest Service is providing 154 of the 170 fire engines coming to California to fight the fires. “If they do not have sufficient funding to ensure their wildland fire program is fully supported, we don’t have the ability to reach out to them to get mutual aid and assistance in the same capacity.”
The catastrophic nature of California’s fires, combined with their timing, has some hoping Congress will be motivated to work out a solution. “I hope so,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., replied when asked if the fires bring more urgency to the issue.
The fires are being discussed in the same breath as the hurricanes that hit Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, and advocates hope that could help shift perceptions about wildfires.
Congress is voting on a natural disaster spending bill this week in response to the hurricanes and fires, just one of what are expected to be several pieces of aid legislation to help the affected areas recover. Backers of a firefighting budget fix would like to attach the measure either to one of those bills, or the legislation needed to fund the entire government that’s due in December.
“We are trying,” he said.