Fire Borrowing, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, and an Opportunity for Bipartisan Action

, lead economist and climate policy manager | February 9, 2015, 10:26 am EDT
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Perhaps it seems strange to be writing about wildfires in February, even as the Boston area (where I live) has just experienced its snowiest week on record. But it’s during the “off-season” that we have the opportunity to take stock of the causes and costs of past wildfires and take steps to better prepare and protect communities for future ones. Unfortunately, in some parts of the country like California there is no “off-season” as they face the threat of year-round fire seasons.

Growing costs of wildfires

Hotter, drier conditions in the American West, combined with forest management practices and development in and near wildfire-prone areas, are contributing to the growing costs of wildfires. And, as this recent article points out, wildfires are especially devastating for the people who lose their homes and livelihoods as a result.

The president’s recently announced FY 16 Budget identified areas of the federal budget that are exposed to financial risk from climate change. Over the last decade the federal government has spent $34 billion on wildland fire management. While not all of that is attributable to climate change, it is clearly an important factor.

Harmful impacts of fire borrowing

The cost of putting out wildfires has exceeded $1 billion (in 2012 dollars) every year since 2000. For seven of the last 12 years, the USDA and the Department of the Interior (the two main federal agencies that fight wildfires) have spent their fire-fighting budget before the season ended and have had to borrow from other parts of their budget. This so-called “fire borrowing” or “fire transfer” is not sustainable, and it comes at the expense of other priorities, including measures to reduce future wildfire risks, such as thinning trees in wildfire-prone areas and investing in better forest management. In nearly every state, this has affected funding for wildfire preparedness and forest restoration.

Legislative action could help fix the fire borrowing problem

Several recent bipartisan bills proposed in Congress have tried to fix the problem of fire borrowing. These include the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2013 (S. 1875) proposed by Senators Wyden and Crapo; a similar House bill, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (HR. 167) proposed by Representative Simpson and Schrader (first introduced in 2013); and the FLAME Act Amendments Act of 2014, a bill introduced by Senators McCain, Barrasso, and Flake. Unfortunately, none of these bills have thus far moved toward being enacted.

The president’s budget also proposes a remedy to help limit the harmful impacts of fire borrowing. The new budget framework would fund wildland fire suppression in a similar manner as other natural disasters are funded. It would set a base funding level equivalent to 70 percent of the 10-year average for suppression costs within the discretionary budget cap. A cap adjustment would then be used for fighting only the most severe fires, which comprise one percent of the fires, but 30 percent of the costs.

Homes at risk from wildfires

Growing development in wildfire prone areas is a significant contributor to growing wildfire costs. 1.2 million homes across 13 western states—with a combined estimated value of more than $189 billion—are located in areas at high or very high risk of wildfires. The majority of the highest-risk properties are in California, Colorado, and Texas, which together have nearly 80 percent of such properties in the western states.

Limiting these types of risky development patterns requires coordinated action among state and federal agencies and policy makers tasked with forest management and fire management, local agencies tasked with zoning regulations, communities located in high fire-risk areas, and insurance companies who insure homes in fire-prone areas.

Limiting future risks and costs of wildfires

Wildfires are costing people living in wildfire prone areas and American taxpayers tens of billions of dollars, and the costs are only projected to increase with a warming climate. Unfortunately, our current approach doesn’t make good economic sense: we spend most of the money chasing the problem, rather than trying to prevent or limit it.

Congress should move forward with bipartisan legislation – also supported by the Obama Administration – to fix the problem of fire borrowing

We also need better maps and data to help identify high wildfire risk areas and better prepare and protect communities on the frontlines of those risks. It’s important to clearly communicate wildfires risks to the public, and create incentives for homeowners and communities to invest in measures to reduce their wildfire risks. We also need policies and incentives to limit further development in wildfire-prone areas, which is putting more people and property in harm’s way.

Investing in better forest management is critical. For example, the president’s budget includes a proposal to invest $83 million for better data to help inform the management of forests in the face of growing climate risks, among other factors. The Forest Inventory and Analysis program would deliver landscape-scale survey data in all 50 states to foster terrestrial carbon conservation and retention in land and natural resource management.

Ultimately, we also need to cut the heat-trapping emissions that are causing climate change and fueling wildfire risks.

 

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  • nobodygivesacrap

    I can suggest, from personal experience, that changing the way we pay for wildland fires on federal lands isn’t going to fix the problem. We would just be taking money out of one pocket and putting it in the other pocket.

    The way to fix the problem is to get rid of the Red Book. The Red Book is an
    interagency agreement (the Bureau of Indian Affairs does not go by the Red Book) that forces the Department of the Interior to follow all of the US Forest Services decisions with respect to wildland firefighting chemicals (and other matters).

    The USFS’s sole goal is to grow its budget – putting out fires won’t do that! Putting out fires is bad for business.

    One company gets in excess of 99.9% of all the wildland firefighting chemical business – except in California where it gets 100% of the wildland firefighting chemical business. The company that gets all of the business had the foresight to hire three very senior USFS employees.In the early 2000’s this company patented a formula for a new, safe “gum thickened” retardant. The patent was perfected in 2004 and months after the patent was perfected, magically the USFS changed the
    specification for retardant. The most amazing coincidence was that the new specification happened to match the patent that the company who hired the 3 USFS employees developed.

    The company that had 75% of the business now had none. The company that had 25% of the business now has 100%, at least until the patent runs out. The company that had 75% of the business sued the Federal Government for issuing a sole source contract. The parent of the company that got the new contract bought out
    the company that filed the suit against the Federal Government – problem solved.

    The USFS used to publish the retardant cost, but in 2014 announced that it no longer had to post the retardant cost because it is a sole source contract.

    Retardant, the main chemical used to fight wildland fires, was not designed to extinguish fires (The National Interagency Fire Center’s 2006 Wild land Fire Talking Points document, issued in March 2006, on Page 19, under the heading of
    RETARDANT, states in the first sentence: “Retardant does not put fires out”) and has been responsible for a number of fish kills when the retardant was accidentally dumped into waterways. The use of retardant has been the subject of several federal lawsuits. In other words, this new safe gummed thickened retardant kills fish with the same ease the old retardant did.

    The USFS will tell you that there are many approved chemicals on the Class A and Water Enhancer qualified products list. The USFS doesn’t tell you that these many approved chemicals end up with less than 0.1% of the business.

    The point is, if the Department of Interior Agencies could make their own decisions regardingwildland fire chemicals, you would find that there are many chemicals
    that are more effective, safer and substantially cheaper than those purchased from the USFS’s pet chemical manufacturer.