Federal spending bill to tackle “fire borrowing”

A federal spending bill has a chance to solve one of wildland firefighting’s longstanding problems.

The $1.3 trillion federal budget bill, approved after midnight Friday morning, includes a provision that sets aside around $20 billion over 10 years to create an emergency fund for wildfire prevention. Proponents, including Oregon’s two Democratic senators, Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, say the bill provides a mechanism to keep federal fire suppression costs from pulling money designated for other programs, a process known as fire borrowing.

Around $1.4 billion — the 10-year average spent on fire suppression as of fiscal year 2015 — will go toward fire suppression costs every year. The bill also establishes an emergency fund for fires that exceed that total, beginning in 2020 and continuing through 2027.

Merkley said the structure better reflects how other natural disasters are funded.

“It’s a win-win on every front,” Merkley said Thursday before the bill’s approval.

Additionally, the bill designates $430 million to the U.S. Forest Service for activities that reduce the buildup of hazardous fuels on federally managed land.

Merkley said that total, an increase of approximately 10 percent, is not sufficient but represents “a serious step in the right direction.”

Fire borrowing occurs when a federal agency, including the Forest Service, doesn’t budget enough money for wildfire suppression and ends up using money earmarked for other programs, including forest thinning, controlled burns and other pre-emptive efforts to reduce wildfires in future years. Without money for prevention, future wildfire seasons can be worse than they would be otherwise, creating a vicious cycle, according to Merkley.

The Forest Service currently funds its firefighting efforts using a rolling average of fire suppression costs from the previous 10 years. However, Jennifer Jones, public affairs specialist for the Forest Service, wrote in an email that the agency’s fire suppression costs have exceeded its budget in all but three years since 2000. Jones added that, as wildfire seasons get longer and hotter and more homes are built in areas that are susceptible to large fires, wildfire suppression is getting more expensive for the Forest Service.

“There are a variety of factors driving these trends, including hazardous fuel buildups, insect and disease infestations, non-native species invasions, drought, and long term weather trends,” Jones wrote.

Merkley said he began focusing on fire borrowing after the 2012 wildfire season, which saw federal agencies managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior spend $1.9 billion on fire suppression, more than was budgeted to fight the fires.

“This is horrific,” Merkley said. “No organization should operate like this.”

Merkley, Wyden and other Western senators on both sides of the aisle have pushed for a federal fix to fighting wildfires for years, but without significant traction. Merkley said the regional nature of wildfires has led to resistance against funding them like other natural disasters.

“It’s not something that affects the Northeast very much; it’s not something that affects the Southeast very much,” Merkley said.

However, Merkley added the most recent fire season helped open eyes across the country. Jones wrote that the Forest Service spent $2.4 billion on fighting wildfires in 2017, around $800 million more than the agency had budgeted.

In Oregon, 2,058 fires burned 717,219 acres across the state in 2017, according to Stephen Baker, spokesman for the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest region. Baker added the Forest Service spent $420 million on fire suppression in the state last year.

Merkley said he is optimistic that the bill’s funding structure could halt fire borrowing through 2027.