Fire-funding reform bill would ease budget strain

A recent Senate hearing on the skyrocketing costs of wildfire suppression has underscored the importance of moving forward on the FLAME Act, a bill that would relieve budgetary pressure on federal land management agencies.

"Right now, we want to get the bill out of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and onto the Senate floor," said Cecilia Clavet, a forest policy analyst with The Wilderness Society, who testified at the hearing. "Hopefully, the testimony will provide the impetus to pass the bill along."

The goal of the legislation is to create an established funding source for Forest Service and Interior Department emergency fire suppression activities that is separate from the regular fire suppression budgets. Because the costs of emergency catastrophic fires are so high, the agencies have been forced to raid non-fire program budgets after running out of regularly allocated funds. As a result, important programs for the health and conservation of America's national forests halt mid-year, including programs that would reduce the risks and costs of catastrophic wildfire.

According to the Partner Caucus on Fire Suppression Funding Solutions, these extraordinary emergency fires are responsible for over 95 percent of burned acres and account for a staggering 85 percent of all fire suppression costs.

"These are not average wildfires," said Leah MacSwords, a spokesperson for the Partner Caucus — a group of more than 100 organizations advocating for innovative responses to the challenge of emergency fire funding. "They should be treated the same way as other natural disasters to avoid severe depletion of the agency's constrained budget."

Clavet, like many of the witnesses and senators at July's Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, explained that only by maintaining this strict emergency/non-emergency partition could the agencies hope to reel in costs.

"By the time FLAME passed out of the House in March, it had picked up some problematic amendments," Clavet said. "The intent of Congress language, which was very clear that the new fund is only for emergency purposes, got stripped out. That undermines the distinction between emergency and non-emergency funding sources that's at the core of this bill."

Read the rest of MacSwords' testimony.