Legislation to help cover costs of recent natural disasters passed the Senate this week; President Donald Trump is expected to sign it. This emergency legislation is much needed, but it falls short of tackling the problematic way Congress has funded wildland firefighting.
The bill heading for the president’s desk contains $576 million for wildfire relief. Montana’s entire congressional delegation took credit for that funding. Montana struggled through its most expensive fire year ever with the state’s fire suppression costs expected to top $368 million. The state of Montana’s share will be about $70 million, which burned up its entire firefighting budget and more. The federal government will pay most of the rest.
The wildfire appropriation is a relatively small slice of the $36.5 billion disaster package, most of which will flow to hurricane-ravaged areas of Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.
Why is it that Congress managed to pass $36.5 billion in hurricane aid within a matter of weeks, yet has failed for years to fund catastrophic wildfire costs in same way?
The wildfire appropriation by no means covers the full costs of fighting fire throughout the West this year. By early September, the U.S. Forest Service had spent $2 billion on firefighting with three weeks of the federal fiscal year remaining. The 2018 fiscal year got off to a bad start this month with the California wine country fires that consumed 8,400 homes and other buildings.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, spoke on the Senate floor Tuesday before the disaster funding vote to remind senators that more work is needed to get a long-term fix for fire funding.
Tester is cosponsoring legislation to pay for wildfires the same way that other natural disasters are funded, and to stop the “fire borrowing” that depletes more than half of the entire Forest Service budget in recent years.
There is bipartisan support for funding wildfire expenses like floods and hurricane disasters are funded. In September, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue renewed his call for an end to fire borrowing.
“Forest Service spending on fire suppression in recent years has gone from 15 percent of the budget to 55 percent – or maybe even more – which means we have to keep borrowing from funds that are intended for forest management,” Perdue said in a USDA news release. “We end up having to hoard all of the money that is intended for fire prevention, because we’re afraid we’re going to need it to actually fight fires. It means we can’t do the prescribed burning, harvesting, or insect control to prevent leaving a fuel load in the forest for future fires to feed on. That’s wrong, and that’s no way to manage the Forest Service.”
It’s good that Tester, Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte recognized the need to support this disaster legislation. Now they all ought to be actively supporting an end to fire borrowing so that a new law is in force before the next fire season heats up.