Vilsack: Growing cost of fighting fires hurts other programs

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Wednesday stressed the need for Congress to pass alternative funding for the government to battle the increasing wildfires raging across the U.S.

Vilsack unveiled a report Wednesday detailing the growing cost of fighting fires, which has forced the Forest Service to cut millions from other programs — including ones that would help reduce wildfire risks in the first place.

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"Climate change, drought, fuel buildup and insects and disease are increasing the severity of catastrophic wildfire in America's forests," Vilsack said in a statement on Wednesday.

"In order to protect the public, the portion of the Forest Service budget dedicated to combatting fire has drastically increased from what it was 20 years ago. This has led to substantial cuts in other areas of the Forest Service budget, including efforts to keep forests healthy, reduce fire risk, and strengthen local economies," he said.

On top of budget reductions, the report focuses on "fire borrowing," which happens when the agency must transfer or borrow money from non-fire programs to help cover the costs of fighting wildfires.

Vilsack urged Congress to pass legislation for an existing disaster fund, especially in years when the Forest Service and Interior Department fire costs exceed the amount Congress previously budgeted.

"Bipartisan proposals to fund catastrophic fire like other natural disasters could help ensure that efforts to make forests more healthy and resilient and support local tourism economies aren't impacted as significantly as they have been in recent years," Vilsack said.

"These proposals don't increase the deficit, they just budget smarter by allowing existing natural disaster funding to be used in cases of catastrophic wildfire," he added.

Fighting wildfires now makes up 42 percent of the Forest Service's overall budget. That's up from 16 percent in 1995.

As the need to fund wildfire fighting increases, the funds for other key programs have dwindled, the report states. There has been a 67 percent reduction in funding to facilities, and 46 percent reduction in funding to roads.

"Reduced funding has jeopardized the agency’s ability to address basic facility operational and maintenance needs and many of our safety issues such as those associated with water and septic systems," the report states. "The overall effect is an increase in public health and safety concerns, and liability for the federal government."

The only way national forests can reduce government liability, the report adds, is to "close recreation facilities ... impacting the outdoor recreation opportunities" for local communities. 

Vilsack said the average number of fires on federal lands has doubled since 1980 and the total area bunted has tripled annually.