Bera, Simpson, Kilmer, Reichert, Schrader Lead 54 Representatives Calling for Wildfires to be Treated Like Natural Disasters | Congressman Ami Bera

Bera, Simpson, Kilmer, Reichert, Schrader Lead 54 Representatives Calling for Wildfires to be Treated Like Natural Disasters

Jun 29, 2016
Press Release
Senate Committee Pushes for End to Fire Borrowing Following Members’ Call to Action

In 2015 Alone, Over 10 million Acres were Burned by Forest Fires

Federal Land Agencies Borrowed Close to $700 Million to Deal with Wildfires Last Year 

Washington, D.C. –  Representatives Ami Bera, M.D. (CA-7), Mike Simpson (ID-2), Derek Kilmer (WA-6), David Reichert (WA-8), and Kurt Schrader (OR-5) led a group of 54 other representatives in calling for an immediate fix to the practice of “fire borrowing,” which forces federal land agencies to take money from other important projects to cover the costs of dealing with wildfires. Many of these projects are used to prevent wildfires from spreading out of control. The Western United States is still experiencing dry conditions that have stoked wildfires for several weeks, with conditions primed for more to come. Last year, fires swept over 10 million acres and damaged communities and wildlife. Following the letter, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources pushed for an end to fire borrowing.

“The practice of fire borrowing is irresponsible – our first responders must have the resources they need to combat wildfires,” said Bera. “My home state of California has seen the terrible damage wildfires can do to homes, ecosystems, and entire communities – the same devastation that other natural disasters incur. We need to start treating wildfires like every other natural disaster that has access to emergency funding.”

“The severity of recent fire seasons underscores the fact that our current wildfire suppression budget does not work,” said Simpson. “The Forest Service budget for wildfire suppression was roughly 15% twenty years ago, now it is over half. Until we address the problem of fire borrowing, funds intended for forest management, including hazardous fuels removal, timber harvest, and trail maintenance, will continue to pay for fire suppression.”

“Increasingly intense wildfires are swallowing up the U.S. Forest Service’s budget,” said Kilmer. “The practice of fire borrowing cannibalizes funding from other important areas of the Forest Service like managing our forests. In the end that hurts forest health, hurts our ability to prevent fires, and hurts local economies. To reverse this trend the Senate needs to join the House in finally declaring that wildfires are a natural disaster and should be treated just like a flood or a hurricane.” 

“Last year’s relentless wildfires burned over one million acres in my home state of Washington, destroying homes that stood in their path and displacing families throughout our region,” said Reichert. “And while our brave first responders worked tirelessly to protect our communities, their efforts were limited by the resources available to them. This dangerous and irresponsible cycle of fire-borrowing must end. In order to prevent future wildfires, we must focus on addressing the issues that cause them in the first place.”

“Wildfire season last year devastated communities throughout Oregon and many states across the west, shattering spending records and forcing the Forest Service to divert more money to fighting fires from other programs designated for hazardous fuels reduction,” Schrader said. “When we have catastrophic wildfires in the west, these are our natural disasters just like the tornadoes and hurricanes that affect our friends in other parts of the country. It’s time that Congress recognizes this, and acts not only to address the funding issue, but also the root problem and that’s the mismanagement of our forests.”    

The text of the letter is below:

The Honorable Mitch McConnell
Senate Majority Leader
317 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

The Honorable Lisa Murkowski
Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
304 Dirksen Senate Building
Washington, DC 20510

The Honorable Harry Reid
Senate Minority Leader
522 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

The Honorable Maria Cantwell
Ranking Member
Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
304 Dirksen Senate Building
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Majority Leader McConnell, Minority Leader Reid, Chairwoman Murkowski and Ranking Member Cantwell,

Many Members of Congress are concerned about the costly practice of fire borrowing.  As we continue to work with our colleagues in the House of Representatives to end this practice, we would like to urge the Senate to take up similar legislation.

As you know, most of the American West is still experiencing severe drought conditions which has significantly increased the danger for damaging wildfires. These wildfires cause serious damage to property and threaten lives. In 2015, more than 10 million acres were burned by wildfires. Federal land agencies borrowed nearly $700 million from land management and other important activities to fight these fires. This leaves these agencies with fewer resources to conduct thinning, timber harvests, and controlled burns which can reduce the severity of these wildfires.

Before the 2016 fire season begins, we believe it is critical that Congress change the way in which we provide funds to the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior to fight catastrophic wildland fires. In seven of the past 10 years, the costs of fighting wildfires has exceeded the Forest Service’s firefighting budget. This forced the agency to borrow funds intended for forest management practices.  

In addition, the portion of firefighting costs out of the U.S. Forest Service budget has risen steadily over the past 20 years.  In 2015, wildland fire suppression costs were more than 50 percent of the Forest Service’s total budget. Redirecting funds to firefighting takes funds away from other important programs that can help land managers more actively manage forests to reduce the risk of future wildland fires.

We believe that Congress needs to address this problem through legislation that would treat wildfires like other natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes. This change would eliminate the need for the Forest Service to use funds appropriated for other programs to cover the costs of fighting wildfires.

The House has shown strong support to end fire-borrowing and we are committed to addressing this problem during the remaining months of the 114th Congress. We hope that you will do the same and take action to give the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior the ability to fight wildland fires without limiting their ability to carry out the rest of their missions. We stand to ready to work with you to fix this critical problem.