Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) today filed an amendment to the Senate Budget Resolution that would require Congress to fully fund the U.S. Forest Service’s cash-strapped wildfire management account as catastrophic wildfires grow in frequency and intensity.
This year, the cost of the Forest Service’s wildfire suppression operations has exceeded $2 billion, making 2017 the most expensive wildfire year on record. According to the Forest Service, more than 55 percent of the agency’s budget is consumed by suppression operations, compared to just 15 percent 20 years ago. The amendment would allow senators to invoke a budget point of order against the Interior Appropriations Bill if it fails to provide sufficient funding for wildfire suppression using the federal government’s most accurate wildfire budget forecast, called the FLAME Act estimate.
Congress typically appropriates funds for wildfire suppression based on a 10-year rolling average of historic suppression obligations, which has not kept pace with the ballooning costs of wildfires. Twelve of the past 16 fiscal years saw more than $8 billion in emergency appropriations for the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior. This emergency funding arrives later in a wildfire season and not before the agency is forced to cannibalize non-wildfire program accounts to pay for wildfires—a practice known as “fire borrowing.”
“Year after year, Congress wrestles over how to fully fund Forest Service wildfire operations,” said Senator McCain. “The hard truth is that the Forest Service has become the Fire Service, and we have yet to effectively address fire-borrowing or reduce hazardous fuels in order to lower the cost of fighting wildfires. This amendment would incentivize appropriators and the authorizing committees to compromise on a long-overdue solution to prevent and fight wildfires, which continue to devastate communities in Arizona, California, and across the arid West.”
“We cannot afford to keep kicking the can down the road on fire-borrowing,” said Senator Flake. “The time has come for a fiscally responsible solution to give the USFS assurances that unanticipated wildfire costs will not erode the service’s other important functions.”