Summit County, U.S. officials push for creation of wildfire disaster fund
In the face of another potentially harsh summer, U.S. officials are putting pressure on Congress to advance a bill that would fund catastrophic wildfires similarly to other natural disasters, such as tornadoes or hurricanes. The “Wildfire Disaster Funding Act,” proposed by the Senate this year, would end the practice of “fire borrowing” by allowing the U.S. Forest Service to pull funds from a separately created disaster account, instead of pulling from local budgets to balance the checkbooks.
“We know that we’re facing another severe and potentially dangerous wildfire season. There’s no question it’s exacerbated by climate change,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell during a press conference on Tuesday. “These are emergencies. They should be treated as such.”
While spring precipitation resulting from El Nino has helped reduce fire risks in central states such as Colorado, states further west face a higher chance of wildfires with drier weather patterns this summer.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have above normal precipitation in the center of the country,” said U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell. “But we’ll see conditions deteriorate. We’re predicting an above-average fire season.”
He said that southern Arizona and California currently have the highest wildfire risk, but later Oregon, Washington and northern Idaho are predicted to dry out when summer weather moves in.
“This is a very serious issue for America,” he added.
Robbing Peter to pay Paul
Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs said last year $480,000 was transferred from forest funds on the district level to fight fires outside of the county.
“Here Congress is pulling money to help pay for fires going elsewhere, when we need money on the ground to help fund defensible space measures,” Gibbs said. “To not fund important public lands, to rob Peter in one area to pay for Paul in another, does not make any sense at all.”
About 80 percent of Summit County is located on federal land, with the lakes, hiking trails and rivers serving as a driver for tourism. While the county is less dry than the Front Range, it still sees an average of 25 fires per year. In addition, Summit has more homes located in the wildland-urban interface than any other county in Colorado.
While residents approved a property tax in 2008 that would provide additional funding for wildfire mitigation, the county still feels the effects of funds taken to fight fires elsewhere. The money pulled from local budgets makes it more difficult to fund trail maintenance, fire prevention and several other services crucial to Summit’s economy.
“We’re just waiting for Congress to step up to make this happen,” Gibbs said. “The proposal isn’t necessarily increasing funding to fight fires but looking at tools to fight fires more responsibly. … This would be like insurance, where if you go beyond budget, there are reserves that would be available.”
The bill, which has bipartisan support in the Senate, has not seen any movement in the House since it was proposed in January.
“We can’t sustain this ever-increasing percentage of our budget going to fire-suppression,” U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, adding that 1 percent of the most devastating fires account for 30 percent of suppression costs. He estimated that the cost of this year’s fire season will fall between $810 million and $1.62 billion.
“We will likely have to borrow money from restoration and resiliency funds, which are exactly the funds used to prevent these types of fires,” he said.
The U.S. Forest Service reports that fire suppression costs have exceeded budgets in all but five years since 2000. Jewell added that the U.S. Department of Interior had exceeded its fire suppression budget in nearly half of the previous 14 years.
“We’re still going to fund 98 to 99 percent of fires out of our appropriated budget,” Tidwell said, adding that the criteria for disaster funding would be very specific in determining how much money could come out of the account once Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture resources are depleted.
For the most destructive fires, the cost can exceed $1 million per day, Gibbs said. Colorado’s Hayman fire, for example, lasted six weeks, costing more than $42 million just to suppress the flames, according to the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition.
Current prevention efforts
While officials await action in Congress, several steps have been taken to advance wildfire mitigation. Jewell said the Department of Interior will start training more than 400 veterans with Team Rubicon for their Wildland Firefighter Type II certification in Denver this month to help bolster the department’s staff.
She added that the department also passed a partnership last month to fight rangeland wildfires that would help train rural firefighters and local volunteers to respond more effectively to these types of fires.
“Managing wildland fires requires a high level of coordination,” Jewell said. “Wildfires know no boundaries.”
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