GOP senators introduce bill to boost wildfire funding

A trio of Republican senators from western states introduced their own bill aimed at solving the crisis of federal wildfire funding, one that they said would fully fund firefighting costs while proactively working to prevent wildfires.

Sens. John McCain (Ariz.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and John Barrasso (Wyo.) said their bill would provide for complete funding for the total forecast costs of firefighting the Interior Department and Forest Service estimate each year, as opposed to the 70 percent of costs that the Obama administration wants to fund.

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“Congress must fully fund our fire suppression needs, but to reduce wildfire costs over time we must also thin our fire-prone forests,” McCain said in a statement. “We need to rethink the current practice of throwing billions of taxpayer dollars at wildfires year after year and begin aggressively treating our forests.”

The proposal comes as climate change and increased development have rapidly increased firefighting costs on federal land. Federal officials predicted in May that it would cost $1.8 billion to fight fires this season, $470 million more than what was appropriated. 

The senators’ bill would amend the 2009 Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act, or FLAME Act, which set the current standard process in which the government estimates its firefighting needs based on the average of the 10 previous years.

It differs from an Obama administration proposal unveiled last week, which sought $615 million in emergency funding for wildfires, along with a policy change that would allow agencies to tap into disaster funds when they hit 70 percent of the 10-year average, similar to a process used to respond to other natural disasters like hurricanes. Obama asked for a similar policy shift in his budget request for 2015.

The bill put forth by McCain, Flake and Barrasso would instead let agencies tap into emergency funds only if they completely exhaust a given year’s budget. Half of the additional money would have to go to projects that reduce the fuel for future fires.

“This bill aims to get ahead of the massive wildfire threat that plagues communities throughout the country by making fire suppression and proactive forest management priorities,” said Flake. “Enacting this measure would prohibit the crippling practice of fire borrowing while responsibly budgeting for wildfire management at levels commensurate with the size of the problem.”