Wildfire funding: Both fire prevention and response funds are necessary and should not compete

Monday, April 16, 2018 5:51 PM

The $1.3 trillion spending package passed by Congress in time to avert a government shutdown last month includes something western states have long wanted: money dedicated specifically to fighting catastrophic wildfires.

For years, once federal agencies have exhausted their inadequate firefighting budgets, they have had to “borrow” – a euphemism for raiding – from other budget areas, including, ironically, money allocated for wildfire prevention. As wildfires have worsened, the borrowing has increased, partly because current funding is tied to a 10-year average, which has led to severely inadequate funding in dealing with fires that are bigger, more intense and occur more often.

Colorado’s U.S. senators, Michael Bennet, D-Denver, and Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, worked together to push for a new emergency fund that will provide money that can be tapped when initial firefighting funds are spent, enabling agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to know that money budgeted for nonfirefighting activities will be used for the intended purposes. Because wildland fires can now be treated like other natural disasters, federal land agencies will have predictable resources for prevention.

Kudos to Sens. Bennet and Gardner, as well as all the other western lawmakers who pushed for legislation and funding that had broad bipartisan support but which had seemed unachievable for too long.

The new fund, which will exist outside the regular budget, will start with slightly over $2 billion and, by 2027, will increase to nearly $3 billion per year. The slight catch with those numbers is that last year wildfire costs approached $3 billion, and this year could be as high or higher.

In recent years, the wildfire season has begun earlier and extended later, until no month of the year is safe from catastrophic wildfires. The National Weather Service’s Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook predicts above-normal fire danger for this region beginning in May.

The U.S. Drought Monitor map, updated weekly by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, shows much of the Midwest and most of the Southwest are experiencing moderate to severe drought. So far, Southwest Colorado’s conditions are designated “extreme drought,” while parts of Southeast Utah are faring even worse. (The Center’s drought intensity designations are, from least to worse, abnormally dry, moderate drought, severe drought, extreme drought and exceptional drought.)

Not all lawmakers agreed with the funding. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said Democrats had stood in the way of forest reform measures, including faster approval of timber sales.

There are good arguments to be made for addressing the health of forests on public lands by allocating significant funding toward that goal. Bundling such policy decisions into a do-or-die budget bill is not the best way to address them, and that problem is much broader than this one topic.

The federal budget deal does include $100 million for fire prevention projects. Colorado’s state budget, now headed to the state Senate, currently allocates $2 million for community wildfire preparedness, mitigation and suppression.

This is a good budget move, in a year when the need for it may become disturbingly apparent.

Regardless of what is being done to prevent or minimize wildfires, when they happen, they must be fought. The cost of fighting them should not be disruptive to the goal of preventing them. That only makes sense.