The Obama administration has directed $250 million toward fighting the wildfires raging in California and elsewhere, in addition to $450 million already transferred from different parts of the federal budget earlier this year to go toward fighting such disasters, officials said Tuesday.
As three major fires rage out of control in Northern California, the administration also called on Congress to start treating the ravenous blazes just like hurricanes, tornadoes and other disasters — as emergencies exempt from spending limits.
“With the dramatic growth in wildland fire over the last three decades and an expected doubling again by mid-century, it only makes sense that Congress begin treating catastrophic wildfire as the natural disaster that it is,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell wrote in a letter to lawmakers that was also signed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and President Obama’s budget director, Shaun Donovan.
Congress should change how it funds firefighting in a way that doesn't hinder the agencies from investing in clearing brush or doing other fire prevention work, the three agency directors wrote. In addition to the $700 million transferred from other funds into firefighting, the USDA has spent about $1 billion already in the budget for fire suppression.
Changing climate conditions have forced the U.S. Forest Service to spend more of its annual budget on wildfires, according to a report from the agency. It estimates that by 2025, two-thirds of its funding will be devoted to combating wildfires, which would come at the expense of other programs designed to prevent them in the first place.
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) have introduced legislation that would provide additional funding for wildfire suppression when costs exceed a percentage of the 10-year average.
While the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior are able to suppress or manage 98% of fires with allocated funds, "catastrophic megafires" burn through the agency's financial resources, administration officials said. About 1% or 2% of fires consume 30% or more of total actual annual fire suppression dollars, they said.
Obama has called for the change in funding distribution before. His budget team calls its solution of reallocating funds a "bad habit" the administration has been forced into as the wildfire problem outgrows the funds set aside for it.
Since 2000, the fire seasons have grown longer and more severe, and the cost of the Forest Service's wildfire fighting budget reached a record this summer — $243 million in a single-week period.
The Forest Service transferred funds in seven of the past 14 years.
"Restoring resilient forests helps to protect against future fire outbreaks and is vital to minimizing long-term costs to lives, private and public properties and to struggling rural economies," Vilsack said in a statement. "Under the current budget structure, we are forced to abandon these critical restoration and capital improvement projects in order to suppress these few but extreme fires."