Here's something that's no surprise. Wildfire costs for the federal government blew right past the money set aside to pay for them. And what did Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, direct his staff to do about it?
He told them to put almost anything on hold unless it's an emergency or a hazardous fuels project.
It's not at all clear yet what this will mean at the local level. More than $400 million was shifted last year, according to the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, a nonprofit trade association. This year the shifting could be as much as $600 million.
But every year when the wildfire budget bursts and the Forest Service must raid other accounts, it makes the wildfire situation worse. The hundreds of millions in shifting means there's less money for planning to treat fire-prone areas. The shifting can also hurt the economy by slowing planned timber harvests. It also should not be forgotten that fighting the fires that burned 3.4 million acres in the U.S. this year cost 30 firefighters their lives.
Federal budget planners know at the start of any fiscal cycle that the amount budgeted for wildfires is almost certain to be exceeded. They aim low and create this lurching system of robbing other accounts to fight wildfires.
This year the Interior Department aimed even lower. As U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., spotlighted, the department reduced funding for its Hazardous Fuels Reduction program to $95.9 million in the 2014 budget. That's a cut of $88.9 million from the pre-sequester level in 2012.
"Is there some type of fundamental insight that hazardous fuel suppression no longer merits the funding it's had?" Merkley asked.
No, Interior Department officials had to admit.
Congress tried with the FLAME Act in 2009 to "fully anticipate wildland fire requirements and prevent future borrowing from nonfire programs in future years."
It hasn't worked.
Of course, no matter how Congress funds wildfire protection there will be fires. And no matter how good the Forest Service's predicting tools get they aren't going to be perfect. Layer on the sequester and the many other serious problems competing for federal dollars and it's almost inevitable that there are going to be problems funding wildfires.
But we do know the FLAME Act wasn't good enough. Congress and the Obama administration need to find a better solution.
andndash; WesCom News Service