Sen. Crapo Says Changing Wildfire Fighting Budget Formula Is ‘Critical’ Issue

Jan 15, 2014

The costs of fighting wildfires in the U.S. often exceed allotted budgets. Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID) says the federal government needs to overhaul its funding system.
Credit Boise National Forest

Republican Sen. Mike Crapo says he expects wildfire funding legislation he introduced just before Christmas to get bipartisan support in Washington.

Crapo and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-OR, introduced the legislation on December 19. If approved, it would bolster funding for the U.S. Forest Service.

At issue is the agency’s firefighting budget, which is regularly exhausted before a wildfire season ends. Funds from other parts of the agency’s budget are then used to cover additional costs. That money often comes from fire prevention budgets, which can make future fires worse.

Crapo says fundamental changes are needed to overhaul federal firefighting budgets. Agencies base their fire suppression budgets on the average costs of the past 10 years. But Crapo says that formula has underestimated the actual costs eight of the past 10 years. He calls it a “critical” issue.

“We don’t adequately budget for [wildfires],” he says. “Then when the fire expenses are incurred we have to essentially rob from other parts of the agency’s budget to pay for them. And ultimately, what happens is that Congress has to make up for the damage to those other budgets later on. So Congress does pay for them, but it does so in a way that significantly stresses the operations capacity of the Forest Service.”

Wildfires are a bigger concern in the West than any other part of the country. But Crapo thinks lawmakers from other parts of the country will recognize the importance of changing the system. He expects strong support from Congress’ western bloc. He says the bill should get strong bipartisan support, as well.

Under the bill, large fires would be treated as natural disasters.

“It always is more difficult when you have an issue that is only regional and not faced by other parts of the country as much,” he says. “Our legislation will work to include wildfires as a part of the emergency actions that the federal government funds in many parts of the country. And I believe that we will get support from other parts of the country.”

Copyright 2014 Boise State Public Radio