EPA, Pentagon vehicle freeze could jeopardize wildfire assistance

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards are to blame for a freeze in a Pentagon program that provides military equipment to fire departments for fighting wildfires, according to a group of bipartisan senators.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, 25 senators urge the department to restart the program immediately to help rural communities battle growing wildfires.

ADVERTISEMENT
The issue: the Department of Defense (DOD) froze two programs that supply communities with trucks, pumps, generators and engine parts.

In all, the excess federal equipment normally provided totals roughly $150 million.

The reason behind the freeze appears to be an agreement made between the DOD and the EPA that prohibits the transfer and use of federal vehicles that don't meet emission reduction targets.

"We are deeply concerned that this decision was made during the peak of wildfire season,” the letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel states.

“We see no justification for government red-tape to stand in the way of helping first responders get the equipment they need to respond to wildland fires, floods, and other natural disasters," the letter adds.

The change may not have been intentional, as the EPA is now working with the DOD to clear it up.

An EPA spokesman said the agency is working with DOD and the Department of Agriculture to make sure vehicles will continue to be made available to state and local fire and law enforcement departments through the programs in question.

While DOD has partially lifted the freeze, the senators expressed concern over equipment available to first responders and the ability for fire agencies to use vehicles in the long term.

"We understand that there may be confusion within DoD and EPA over the interpretation of regulations barring the transfer of federal vehicles that don’t meet certain emission standards," the letter states.

But it adds that federal equipment may be the only equipment small fire departments "can afford."

The letter also notes that 83 percent of all wildfires fought by state and local fire agencies this year were on federal lands.

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) are among those who signed the letter.

The freeze comes as President Obama is urging Congress to approve $615 million in emergency cash to fight wildfires exacerbated by climate change.

Obama has blamed the increasingly severe wildfires in recent years on climate change. Many of the wildfires are in western states on large swaths of federally owned land.

On Friday, House Democrats filed a discharge petition to force a vote on a wildfire funding bill that would allow the administration to dip into contingency funds when wildfire fighting budgets get out of hand.