The U.S. Forest Service said Tuesday that it need access to new funds to combat the 1 percent of wildfires that are the most dangerous—and expensive—to fight.
President Barack Obama’s $4 trillion budget proposal would allow the Forest Service to use FEMA and other natural disaster relief funds for fire suppression. As it stands, the agency routinely pilfers cash from other parts of its budget, including blaze prevention and forest restoration, to pay for firefighting.
“These are emergencies. They should be treated as such,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said to reporters during a conference call on Tuesday. “[Forest Service] firefighting has exceeded budget in nearly half of the last 14 years.”
The president’s proposal largely mirrors language taken from the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which was introduced by Reps. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon, in 2014.
The bill has almost 100 bipartisan cosponsors, but has been stuck in the House Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy and Forestry since February of last year. An attempt to force a floor vote on the act, known formally as House Resolution 3992, failed in July after Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif., was unable to obtain the 218 signatures needed for a discharge petition.
During the press conference, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack emphasized the natural origin—in essence, lightning strikes—that cause most forest fires.
“We want to use a fund that’s set aside for disasters” he said. “And [forest fires] are every bit as natural as tornadoes or hurricanes.”
One percent of forest fires soak up 30 percent of the Forest Service’s suppression budget, according to a Department of Agriculture press release. Combined, the Agriculture and Interior departments expect to spend somewhere between $810 million to $1.62 billion battling deadly forest fires this season. The high end of that estimate exceeds their total budget by $200 million.
“What’s frustrating about this is that we’re not asking for new dollars… It’s just spending existing money in a slightly different way,” Vilsack said. “We’ll fight the 98 to 99 [percent] of fires. But there’s 1 to 2 percent that we simply cannot afford.”
Republicans in the GOP-controlled House and Senate have already rejected the President’s budget proposal. The House Appropriations Committee released a bill last Tuesday that would increase firefighting and prevention funds by $52 million.
In the meantime, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell warned reporters that, despite the delayed start to the season, dangerous infernos are already burning in California and Arizona. Oregon, Washington and Northern Idaho are expected to see their share of blazes as the fire season continues.
“We’re ready when fires strikes,” Jewell, the interior secretary, said during the conference. “We hope mother nature is good to us. But she may not be.”