Today the Western Governors Association called on Congress to increase federal funding available for preventing and suppressing wildfires, which have grown increasingly intense and destructive in western states.
“Wildfires devastated Washington communities in 2014, and wildfire seasons continue to grow costlier for our state and all levels of government,” said Gov. Jay Inslee. “I join with my western states colleagues in urging Congress to provide federal agencies with the resources they need to help states effectively respond to wildfires, while also making progress to prevent and mitigate the threat of major fires.”
Last summer’s fire season included the largest wildfire in state history and burned through six times as many acres as the annual average. It cost the state more than $100 million to extinguish the fires. State costs over the last three years total close to $180 million.
Due to current policy constraints, the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior have each year been forced to engage in so-called “fire borrowing,” wherein their fire suppression activities eat up agency funding intended for other purposes, including forest health management and wildfire prevention work in federal forests.
With an increase in the intensity of western wildfire seasons, USFS has seen its firefighting spending grow from 13 percent of the agency’s annual budget to more than 40 percent over the last 25 years. Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in both chambers of Congress that would instead allow these agencies to access emergency funding in responding to major fires, similar to the way the Federal Emergency Management Agency responds to other natural disasters.
Inslee said the policy change would help the USFS complete more forest health projects that would help reduce intensity of fires and make it easier and less costly to extinguish. The Washington State Department of Natural Resources estimates that 1.1 million acres of USFS lands need active restoration and 448,707 acres are readily accessible for treatment. Currently, the USFS is treating an estimated 21,000 acres per year.
“Millions of acres of federal forestland have become all-you-can-eat buffets for forest-killing insects, parasites, and diseases that spread quickly through overgrown stands,” said Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark. “Congress should provide emergency funding to fight wildfires while greatly increasing the budget for the stewardship of America’s shamefully neglected national forests. We must fix this broken model before more people, communities, and wildlife suffer needless harm.”
The Western Governors’ Association sent a letter to Congressional leaders today arguing that “the current funding situation has allowed severe wildfires to burn through crippling amounts of the very funds that should instead be used to prevent and reduce wildfire impacts and costs. This represents an unacceptable set of outcomes for taxpayers, at-risk communities, and responsible stewardship of federal land.” The letter was signed by the WGA Chairman, Governor Brian Sandoval of Nevada, on behalf of the 19-governor bipartisan association.
Governor Inslee and Washington Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark wrote last summer to the WA Congressional Delegation urging them to support ending to fire borrowing, which President Obama had requested as part of an emergency supplemental budget. However, legislation has not reached the President’s desk.
Inslee also led the WGA in adopting new policy last year calling for the federal government to increase disaster recovery and mitigation assistance to Western states that are increasingly suffering from devastating wildfires, as well as other types of major disasters.
According to a study mandated by the Washington State Legislature and conducted by the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group, the number of acres burned by wildfires each year in the Pacific Northwest is projected to nearly double by the 2020s, and nearly triple by the 2040s, as a result of changes in precipitation, temperature and other factors largely driven by climate change.