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USDA, FS host Senators for 2017 Fire Briefing

WASHINGTON — Key members of the Department of Agriculture and Forest Service met with members of Congress for a 2017 fire briefing to hear about this year’s efforts to contain wildfires all over the country as well as the way fire suppression is funded. Currently, the agency has to transfer money from nonfire programs to combat ongoing wildfires. Secretary Perdue believes Congress should treat major fires the same as other disasters and should be covered by emergency funds so nonfire programs, including prevention, are not raided.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue hosted the meeting attended by Sens. Mike Crapo from Illinois, Steve Daines from Montana, Michael Bennet from Colorado, Jeff Flake from Arizona, Jim Risch from Idaho, and Ron Wyden from Oregon. The meeting took place at the Forest Service’s National Fire Desk in Washington, D.C. Vicki Christiansen, Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry, and Shawna Legarza, Director of Fire and Aviation Management, conducted the briefing.

The meeting focused on the recent costs of wildland fire suppression. This fiscal year those costs exceeded $2 billion, making it the most expensive year on record for the Forest Service. This fire season began last fall in the Southeast. This summer, wildfires have ravaged states in the West, Pacific Northwest, and Northern Rockies regions of the United States. Currently, the fire suppression portion of the Forest Service budget is funded at a rolling ten-year average of appropriations, while the overall Forest Service budget has remained relatively flat.

“We have had just about 49,000 fires in America. That’s all fires – federal, state, local, across the nation. We burned 8.4 million acres in America this year. That’s the size of Massachusetts. On Forest Service lands, we burned about 2.3 million acres, that’s Delaware and Rhode Island combined,” Legarza explained.

Because the fire seasons are longer and conditions on the ground are hotter and drier, the ten-year rolling fire suppression budget average keeps rising, consuming a greater percentage of the total Forest Service budget each year. This increase forces the agency to take funds from nonfire programs to cover fire suppression costs. Secretary Perdue’s proposal would ensure both fire suppression and prevention efforts receive the proper funding they need. Just last week, Secretary Perdue urged State Foresters to call on Congress to fix this fire funding problem.

Forest Service National Director of Fire and Aviation Management Shawna Legarza briefs Sonny Perdue and Senators Mike Crapo (R-ID), Steve Daines (R-MT), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Jim Risch (R-ID), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) at the Forest Service for a 2017 fire briefing, in the USDA Forest Service Headquarters, Yates Building Fire Desk, on Sept. 26, 2017. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

Over 100 years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Forest Service to manage America’s 193-million acre national forests and grasslands for the benefit of all Americans. Today, that mission is being consumed by the ever-increasing costs of fighting fires.

As more and more of the agency’s resources are spent each year to provide the firefighters, aircraft, and other assets necessary to protect lives, property, and natural resources from catastrophic wildfires, fewer and fewer funds and resources are available to support other agency work—including the very programs and restoration projects that reduce the fire threat.

“This increasing 10-year average cost of fire creates an ongoing erosion of our agency’s ability to support the nonfire programs – the proactive work that is so important,” said Christiansen.

The Forest Service is committed to stepping up forest management to restore healthy, resilient forests. This will result in jobs and economic benefits for rural communities and be responsive to the American taxpayers. A fire funding fix will help the Forest Service by allowing the agency to direct more resources to this critical work on the ground.