House Republicans Fiddle While Forest Service Runs Out Of Money To Fight Wildfires

Dustin Ellison attempts to beat down a roadside hot spot with a mat from his car on Monday, May 5, 2014, in Guthrie, Okla. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/NICK OXFORD
Dustin Ellison attempts to beat down a roadside hot spot with a mat from his car on Monday, May 5, 2014, in Guthrie, Okla. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/NICK OXFORD

With multiple fires burning in the West, and the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) wildfire budget expected to run dry in the coming days, House Democrats have launched an all-out effort to force an up-or-down vote on a bipartisan proposal that would provide wildland firefighters the resources they need to do their jobs.

One hundred and ninety-six House Democrats have thus far signed on to what is known as a discharge petition, which would force House Republican leaders to bring the stalled Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014 to a vote.

Instead of debating a measure to provide needed resources for fighting wildfires, however, the House this week is expected to vote on a bill that would waive at least 14 environmental laws within 100 miles of the southern U.S. border, and has already spent time voting on legislation to weaken the Endangered Species Act (ESA). “With rising temperatures and record droughts across the country, we could be headed into one of the worst wildfire seasons in our history,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said in launching the discharge petition on July 11. “But with fires raging across the west, the money is running out — and House Republicans can’t be bothered to act.”

Fire conditions are regionally variable, and worse than normal in California and the Pacific Northwest this year The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which President Obama included in his Fiscal Year 2015 budget proposal for Congress and which is also championed by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-CO) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID), would treat the worst 1 percent of wildfires like other natural disasters by allowing the federal government to draw from special disaster funds to support response efforts.  A May analysis by the Center for American Progress found that this type of reform proposal would have “far-reaching benefits for American communities, parks, and public lands,” by helping free up resources for fire prevention, fuels reduction, and mitigation. As part of their campaign for an up-or-down vote on the wildfire funding bill, House Natural Resources Committee Democrats released an analysis Tuesday that found that between 2008 and 2012 the U.S. Forest Service had to spend $1.6 billion “fighting the worst 1 percent of American wildfires, accounting for 30 percent of the agency’s total firefighting costs.” “In case the Republican leadership hasn’t noticed, the west is going up in flames. Yosemite is burning, but they have turned a blind eye to continue this political, partisan ESA sideshow” said Peter DeFazio (D-OR) in releasing the report. “We should have dropped this charade and done something real — fixed wildfire funding before our agencies run out of money. There is no excuse for inaction.” With DeFazio and his colleagues only 22 signatures short of the 218 required to force a vote on the bill, this new report may be partly aimed at attracting the support of Republican members whose districts are prone to wildfires and whose communities depend on federal agencies to help defend life and property. Members from states like California, Arizona, and Oregon — the three states with the highest spending on catastrophic wildfires — may in the coming weeks face growing pressure from constituents to help pass the wildfire funding bill and avoid the type of recurring budget shortfalls that have plagued land management agencies and Western communities in recent years. In seven of the past twelve years, the USFS and the Department of the Interior (DOI) have significantly exceeded their wildfire budgets, forcing the agencies to divert funds from other critical programs such as forest restoration and regular thinning practices, intended to reduce the numbers of wildfires.  The pattern appears to be repeating itself: addressing the Western Governors Association in June, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack estimated that “fighting wildfires this year will cost about $1.8 billion” which is “$470 million more than Congress has budgeted.”