SACRAMENTO — As wildfires rage throughout the West, congressional Democrats are trying to fast-track a bill that would ensure that the federal wildfire disaster budget retained funding for forest management.
U.S. Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., is circulating a discharge petition to force a House of Representatives floor vote on the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which proponents say would fund the cost of fighting the biggest wildfires the same way as the costs of other natural disasters such as tornadoes and earthquakes are funded.
The bill aims to curb the raiding of non-fire accounts to pay for wildfire suppression when costs exceed an agency’s budget. As such, the plan would allow more money to be spent on hazardous fuels reduction and other prevention efforts designed to reduce the number of huge wildfires that have plagued the Western U.S. in recent years.
House Resolution 3992 was introduced by Reps. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., and has more than 100 cosponsors. But Democrats say they’ve grown impatient with a lack of progress by the GOP leadership on the bill.
“This bill is a bipartisan way to help solve a serious problem; to fight the current fires, we are making future fires more likely,” said Matthew Kravitz, a spokesman for Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif. “The matter was not being handled with the needed urgency by the House Republican leadership.”
As of July 15, the petition had 98 of the 218 signatures it needs to bring the legislation to the floor, Kravitz told the Capital Press in an email.
Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif., who serves with Schrader and Garamendi on the House Agriculture Committee, hasn’t seen the petition but is a cosponsor and supporter of the bill, spokesman Kevin Eastman said. The legislation has widespread bipartisan support, he said.
“There are quite a few members of each party” among its cosponsors, Eastman said.
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell told reporters earlier this year that the federal government’s 2013 fire suppression costs exceeded the 10-year average by $500 million. As happens too often, she said, federal officials had to raid other budgets that fund the prevention efforts to come up with the extra money.
As fire seasons have grown longer and more destructive, such “borrowing” has become regular practice, Simpson has argued. The Forest Service has exceeded its wildfire suppression budgets in eight of the past 10 years, he has said.
When firefighting costs balloon beyond appropriated levels, the bill would force the Forest Service and other agencies to use contingency money rather than dipping into the forest management account.
“We are optimistic that some version of this bill will come to the floor for a vote,” Kravitz said. “This is a crisis that must compel action.”