New bill aims to create firefighting fund

The biggest change in how wildfires are funded in generations could allow firefighters to “get ahead” of potentially catastrophic fires by giving them the funds to do the preventative work that keeps wildfires from spreading, according to National Forest Service officials.

The new rules, proposed this week by President Barack Obama, would set aside a national fund for fighting fire.

Every national forest in the country has a firefighting budget. If that budget is surpassed, forest managers often tap other parts of the forest’s budget, including the budget set aside to fund fire prevention work, such as clearing brush and fuel away from homes and towns.

If the president’s proposal makes it through Congress, a new emergency firefighting fund—separate from the rest of each forest’s budget—would be used to fight fires.

“The President’s proposal is an important step toward solving a recurring problem in the Forest Service budget,” said Robert Bonnie, U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment.

“In many recent years, because of severe fire seasons, the Forest Service has run through its fire suppression budget and has had to ‘borrow’ funds from other budget areas, most notably funds used to restore forest health. This has affected the USDA’s ability to manage forests in a way that could reduce the incidence of wildfires in the future. 

“The new emergency fund, as proposed by the Obama administration, provides budget certainty to the agency as it plots upcoming forest health projects.”

Mammoth Lakes Fire Department Chief Brent Harper believes the proposed changes are a good idea.

“Although there is an emphasis on ‘climate change’ being responsible for large fires, the biggest contributing factor is the high fuel loading,” he said.

“High fuel loading” means that there is a lot of brush and other burnable fuel on the ground.

“When you have an expensive fire year,” Harper said, “the federal agencies cut money out of their fuels management/reduction budget. This is counterproductive to reducing the cost of fires. The only way to slow fires down is fuels reduction. No fuel, no fire. Less fuel, and the fires are not as intense.”

He added that the average number of acres burned has doubled in the last decade, and annual suppression costs have quadrupled.

On the local level, Harper practices what he preaches. All of the local fire departments work in close cooperation with the Inyo National Forest fire managers, who have been working for many years to do acre-by-acre reductions in the amount of fuel on the ground in the areas surrounding Mammoth and all Eastern Sierra communities. 

“The Inyo National Forest, under the direction of Jon Regelbrugge, has done an excellent job of cleaning up the fuel loading,” he said.

“MLFD has reduced fuels on all government lands in Mammoth and many of the large private parcels that would threaten the town. We have also inspected over 1,500 properties and continue to work with homeowners in creating a defensible space around their homes. All of these combined reduce the risk of a catastrophic fire in our community.”

 The bills associated with the request are Senate Bill 1875 and House of Representatives Bill 3992, which are both still in committee and have bipartisan support, according to Forest Service officials.

“The President’s request is based on both of those bills and it will be part of the President’s 2015 budget,” said Deborah Schweitzer, the Inyo National Forest’s public information officer.