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

February 9, 2015
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

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.