Hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes get it — why not wildfires?
That was the question on the table when Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs arrived in Washington, D.C., to testify Tuesday, July 15, at a U.S. Senate committee hearing on wildland fire preparedness and next year’s proposed budget for the Forest Service.
Gibbs, a certified wildland firefighter, testified in support of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which was being considered by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
The Forest Service has exceeded its fire suppression budget for eight of the last 10 years, and the bill would categorize mega-fires as natural disasters and fund them under a disaster cap.
Gibbs urged the committee to stop the practice known as “fire borrowing,” or using money from local Forest Service budgets to pay for emergency protection from raging infernos around the country.
In the Colorado mountains, he explained, the White River National Forest has seen rounds of budget cuts in recent years that hamper the agency’s ability to carry out day-to-day operations. Fire borrowing further exacerbates the situation, he said.
“Last year our local forest unit had over $480,000 transferred from its normal operational budgets to support wildfire response efforts,” Gibbs testified. “As a result, we saw reductions in trail maintenance, recreation facility maintenance, forest health work, invasive species control and fish and wildlife habitat restoration.”
Not only does this kind of reduction negatively impact recreation and local economies, he said, it also causes problems for decades because of missed opportunities to protect critical habitats, safeguard water supplies and prevent future wildfires.
“As wildland fires grow larger and more destructive, we cannot continue to fight them by picking the pockets of our public land agencies,” he said. “This short-sighted approach diverts critical funding sources to the symptoms of this problem, hobbling our thoughtful plans for mitigation and prevention on the front end through fuels reduction.”
Fire protection is so important to Summit County, he said, that in 2008, voters overwhelmingly passed a referendum to fund $500,000 annually to support creation of defensible space, resilient forests and other fire mitigation efforts. When federal funding for fuel reduction work is diverted to fight fires elsewhere, he said, that counteracts efforts to reduce the local threat.
Last year, he said, a $72,000 project to clear deadfall in a popular recreation area was deferred, which impacted 50 to 100 miles of trails and affected recreation opportunities and recreation-based business.
U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, of Colorado, sits on the committee and co-sponsored the bill.
“I am here not only as a Coloradan, but as someone whose home has been subject to a wildfire evacuation order. In Colorado, the question is not if we will have another mega-fire. It’s when,” Udall said at the hearing. “This is the fiscally responsible thing to do. Study after study shows that for every one dollar we spend on mitigation and prevention, we save four dollars later.”
The Forest Service estimates it will spend $1.5 billion fighting wildfires this year. The Interior Department expects to spend an additional $296 million.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, attributed the growing costs of wildfire suppression to three causes: the need for forest restoration and management, population increase creating more and larger vulnerable communities and climate change.
“Escalating fire suppression costs are causing a financial crisis for the Forest Service. The agency routinely exceeds its suppression budget causing it to have to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars from other important programs,” Murkowski said. “Ironically, some of these transfers come from programs, such as hazardous fuels, that could reduce the costs of suppression in the long term.”
Gibbs was one of eight people invited to give testimony at the hearing.