U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich today applauded the news that President Obama incorporated into his Fiscal Year 2015 budget proposal a plan based on a bill they cosponsored to reform federal wildfire policy. The change, which still must be approved by Congress, would fund major wildfires the same as other natural disasters and free up funding to prevent future fires.
“Wildfires are as devastating in New Mexico and the rest of the West as hurricanes are on the East and Gulf coasts, and our firefighters put themselves at great risk each year to keep our communities safe. Wildfires cause tragic loss of life and over $1 billion in damage annually. They cost hundreds of millions of dollars to fight, and after years of drought, pose a greater threat each season,” Udall said. “Yet over the last several years, the federal government has underestimated the cost of wildfires, and it has had to borrow money from other programs to respond. This new plan finally puts the emphasis in the right place, providing certainty for land managers and everyone who depends on our forests.”
“New Mexicans know first-hand the impacts catastrophic wildfires have on our communities and lands. And we share a deep appreciation for our firefighters and other first responders who put their lives on the line everyday to keep us safe,” Heinrich said. “But fighting wildfires cannot come at the expense of programs that can prevent large, costly fires. This plan pays for catastrophic fires in the same way we pay for other natural disasters, while protecting funds for stewardship contracts and other critical forest health programs. We can’t choose between fighting fires and preventing them -- we must do both, and this budget plan makes that possible.”
Currently, agencies base wildland fire suppression budgets on the average costs of the past 10 years. That approach has underestimated the actual costs eight of the past 10 years, and forced the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department to take money from important programs, such as wildfire prevention and other land management Forest Service programs, to make up the difference.
If the change is approved by Congress, the administration would treat the largest fires – roughly 1 percent of annual fires – as natural disasters. It would then fund firefighting efforts from a disaster account like that which funds hurricane and other natural disaster relief efforts. The Forest Service estimates 1 percent of fires consume 30 percent of firefighting budgets, and thus should be treated as true natural disasters.
Removing those megafires from the regular budget could free up to $412 million for land management agencies to fund fire prevention and hazardous fuels reduction projects that can help break the cycle of increasingly dangerous and costly fires.