Obama officials press Congress to shift wildfire funding

Obama officials press Congress to shift wildfire funding
© Getty Images

Top Obama administration officials are calling on Congress to change the way the government allocates funds for fighting wildfires as western states deal with one of the most destructive seasons on record.

In a letter to Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Interior Secretary Sally JewellSarah (Sally) Margaret JewellOvernight Regulation: Senate panel approves driverless car bill | House bill to change joint-employer rule advances | Treasury to withdraw proposed estate tax rule | Feds delaying Obama methane leak rule Overnight Energy: Dems take on Trump's chemical safety pick GOP chairman probes Zinke’s charter plane use MORE and Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan said this year’s fire season is proving to be “disastrous,” with more than 8.5 million acres burned.

“Unfortunately, the season is far from over,” they wrote in the letter.

At a Tuesday breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor, Jewell told reporters that the way funding is presently allocated to treat wildfires is “crazy.”

Currently, Congress doesn’t treat wildfires as natural disasters in which lawmakers can suddenly allocate emergency funding. Instead, the Forest Service has to rely on money Congress appropriates in advance, when it can't foresee future fires.

ADVERTISEMENT
“You can’t put in place a budget that effectively anticipates what kind of a year it’s going to be,” Jewell said.

As a result, the Forest Service has been forced to transfer money that was intended for forest restoration projects and for efforts to prevent wildfires in order to fight the fires.

On Monday, the Forest Service notified Congress that it has to transfer another $250 million, bringing the total amount transferred this year to $700 million. For only a one-week period last month, the cost of fighting the fires reached a record $243 million.

The Obama administration wants Congress to prevent those transfers by appropriating 70 percent of the 10-year average it costs to fight wildfires each year and allowing the Forest Service access to a disaster fund.

In August, the Forest Service released a report that warned that the government might have to spend $2 billion a year suppressing wildfires within the next decade.

For the first time in the Forest Service’s 110-year history, it now spends more than half of its annual budget to fight wildfires. Last year alone, the 10 largest wildfires cost the government more than $320 million, the report said, and conditions are only expected to get worse.

This comes as firefighters race to contain a spreading wildfire in California, which has destroyed hundreds of homes and forced thousands of people to evacuate.

“We’ve got to have action from Congress,” pleaded Jewell, who recently traveled to her home state of Washington to see another massive wildfire. “And if the images they see on the news right now aren’t enough to inspire action, I don’t know what is.”

Timothy Cama contributed.