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Facing record wildfire seasons, Forest Service fights fire funding battle

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Forest Service is for the first time spending more than half its annual budget on firefighting as Alaska and other areas of the country experience particularly destructive wildfires, according to a report released Wednesday.

In 1995, the Forest Service spent only 16 percent of its budget fighting fires. With the number of fires escalating, fighting them could eat up "as much as two-thirds of the budget" in the next 10 years, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in an interview Wednesday.

"The sad reality is that… we're literally having to borrow from time to time, year to year, from accounts that would allow us to reduce the risk of more forest fires by making our forests more resilient," Vilsack said.

As a result of the increased resource drain of firefighting, the new report says there will be major funding cuts to vegetation and watershed management, capital improvements and maintenance, road building, land management planning and the programs that support Endangered Species Act consultations and permits for pipelines and other infrastructure going through forest lands. The number of nonfirefighting personnel has been cut by 39 percent, from 18,000 employees in 1998 to 11,000 employees in 2015, the report said.

Alaska's current fire season has hit record levels, with more than 700 fires in forested areas covering nearly 5 million acres in the state, Vilsack said. "That number is equal to the entire total amount of acreage that was engulfed in flames in the state for the last five years," Vilsack said.

Only a small percentage of those fires are managed by the Forest Service, which is responsible for fires in the Chugach National Forest in Southcentral and the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska. According to the latest interagency report, provided by the Bureau of Land Management, there have been 22 fires in the Forest Service's Alaska domain this year, covering 775.5 acres.

That's just 3 percent of the state's 741 fires so far this season, and not quite two-tenths of a percent of the nearly 5 million acres ablaze this year.

Most of the land on fire in the state this year has been managed by the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management -- 260 fires over 3.9 million acres. And the state has fought 459 fires on more than 1 million acres of land.

The state, meanwhile, is fighting its own budget battles that have taken a chunk out of its firefighting funds.

Vilsack said Wednesday the Forest Service's budget problems don't only affect states where it's fighting the fires, since the "budget creep" impacts everywhere the Forest Service operates -- and the 166 million Americans that visit forests every year. "And that's just the reality. Every aspect of our budget gets negatively impacted by this. And every state gets impacted," he said.

The issue has been escalating for years as fires have outpaced funding. Last year, the Agriculture Department and the Interior Department projected costs $400 million over budget.

The agencies have "been saying this for the last several years and we need to stop sacrificing security for rigidity in the budget process. Because that's all this is. It's an effort to try to maintain a budget structure that just does not give us the solution to the security issue that these fires present," Vilsack said.

"The question is, why is Alaska headed towards a record fire year? Why will it join 10 other states in the western United States with record fire years in the last several years?" Vilsack said. He credited a changing climate that has brought "warmer temperatures, longer droughts, and more disease in the trees."

And outside Alaska, there has been a "record increase in the number of communities that are built in and around forested areas" -- 46 million homes, he said. "So this creates a huge risk, and as a result we are beginning to see longer fire season and more intense and extensive fires."

What the Forest Service wants isn't what they're going to get any time soon: a new way to fund efforts to fight "mega fires" -- the 1 or 2 percent of massive blazes that eat up 30 percent of the Forest Service's firefighting budget every year.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski chairs the subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee responsible for funding the Interior Department and the Forest Service. A funding bill she moved out of the committee earlier this year stuck to tight sequestration budget caps, but also sought a solution for some of the escalating firefighting costs. A new budget mechanism would prevent the agencies from having to borrow across programs for unexpected -- and unfunded -- emergency firefighting.

Vilsack said the move gets the agency halfway there.

The "appropriators from the Senate side made an effort to address the issue of the borrowing" within the agency's budget, he said. "But they still aren't dealing with the creep issue," where a small number of megafires account for nearly a third of the budget, he said.

"The right way to do this would be to consider forest fires as the natural disasters that they are and to treat the 1 to 2 percent of the fires that get out of control as we do a hurricane or tornado or a flood, and pay for it through the emergency account and fund and not use the operating budget of the forest service to handle those mega fires," Vilsack said. "Let the Forest Service handle the other 98 percent of the fires in the operating budget, but reallocate and redirect the fire suppression to those major fires to the (Federal Emergency Management Agency) account that's set up for emergencies."

FEMA does have a grant program for fire assistance. When granted, it pays out 75 percent of costs for mitigation, management and control of fires on state and privately owned forests and grasslands -- but not federal lands.

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