Colorado state legislators expect the costly trend to continue because of a federal funding mechanism that pulls money that could be used for mitigation projects that could reduce the severity of wildfires.
With this in mind, the state Senate sent a request last month to Colorado’s congressional delegation requesting a change in how funding for wildfire response is prioritized across the nation.
Senate Joint Memorial 1 petitions Congress to increase the funding for wildfire suppression for federal land management agencies, such as the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service.
Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, said the agencies transfer money to cover wildfire response costs from other parts of their budget, which leaves fire mitigation and improvement projects underfunded after bad fire years.
“The problem is year after year, the federal government finances the Forest Service at a rate, and it eats a percentage of their budget up more and more and more, and it’s projected (in 2017) to be almost two-thirds of their budget,” Jones said.
The funding formula for wildfire suppression is based upon the average costs over the previous 10 years, Babete Anderson, national press officer for the Forest Service, said in an email. The increased complexity of wildfire suppression has resulted in the cost exceeding the average nearly every year since 2002, with 2005, 2009 and 2010 being the exceptions.
When the 10-year average is exceeded, money must be drawn from unobligated sources or other programs in a process called a “fire transfer,” Anderson said.
The practice allows for fire suppression to be funded when emergencies arise, but it can lead to postponed projects, Anderson said. “When fire transfer occurs, the agency is forced to divert money away from the same forest restoration projects that prevent or lessen the impacts of future wildfire.”
This funding is typically replenished by Congress but can lead to disruption of projects and seasonal work, she said.
In Region 2 of the Forest Service, which includes Colorado, fire transfers in 2015 negatively affected the number of acres of beetle-impacted forest prepared for commercial treatment, reduced the amount of stewardship contracts awarded for mitigation of national forest lands, and cut forest health fieldwork as a result of shorter seasons for employees on temporary contracts, Babete said. All of that resulted in less fuel-load reduction and increased safety issues from the potential for severe fires.
Jones said the reduction in mitigation work is key to the argument for increased funding. Delaying it could mean increasingly severe wildfires down the line.
“That’s the kind of work that needs to happen day to day in the Forest Service without having this money borrowed out of their account,” Jones said.
It’s a perennial issue in the state Legislature and elsewhere, he said. “A number of states have been asking for this for a while, and we’re just keeping up the pressure.”
In Congress, it is seen as a bipartisan issue that needs to be addressed, Anderson said.
“More than 150 bipartisan congressional members have voiced support to remedy this budget issue,” she said.
What form a remedy might take is up in the air, but several have been put forward, she said. “The Obama administration proposed funding fire suppression using a disaster cap adjustment, requiring the agency to budget for 70 percent of the 10-year rolling average, and allowing the agency to draw on funding appropriated government-wide for disasters.”
Other options during Congress’ last session included the Emergency Wildfire and Forest Management Act of 2016, which creates a Wildfire Suppression Operations Account that would hold funds the president could transfer in times of disaster to land managers for suppression operations.
This act was introduced in 2016 and assigned to the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry committee but has not been heard in committee, according to congress.gov.
Jones said he hopes Congress will come to a conclusion sooner rather than later on how to address the issue, but he stressed that any solution must be adequate to the growing needs of fire mitigation.
“It’s important we get this right, and we have got to get ahead of this because we have got to do more mitigation,” he said.