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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Federal Funding for Wildfire Control and Management

Ross W. Gorte
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

The Forest Service (FS) and the Department of the Interior (DOI) are responsible for protecting most federal lands from wildfires. Wildfire appropriations nearly doubled in FY2001, following a severe fire season in the summer of 2000, and have remained at relatively high levels. The acres burned annually have also increased over the past 50 years, with the six highest annual totals occurring since 2000. Many in Congress are concerned that wildfire costs are spiraling upward without a reduction in damages. With emergency supplemental funding, FY2008 wildfire funding was $4.46 billion, more than in any previous year.

The vast majority (about 95%) of federal wildfire funds are spent to protect federal lands—for fire preparedness (equipment, baseline personnel, and training); fire suppression operations (including emergency funding); post-fire rehabilitation (to help sites recover after the wildfire); and fuel reduction (to reduce wildfire damages by reducing fuel levels). Since FY2001, FS fire appropriations have included funds for state fire assistance, volunteer fire assistance, and forest health management (to supplement other funds for these three programs), economic action and community assistance, fire research, and fire facilities.

Four issues have dominated wildfire funding debates. One is the high cost of fire management and its effects on other agency programs. Several studies have recommended actions to try to control wildfire costs, and the agencies have taken various steps, but it is unclear whether these actions will be sufficient. Borrowing to pay high wildfire suppression costs has affected other agency programs. The Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement (FLAME) Act was enacted in P.L. 111-88 to insulate other agency programs from high wildfire suppression costs by creating a separate funding structure for emergency supplemental wildfire suppression efforts.

Another issue is funding for fuel reduction. Funding and acres treated rose (roughly doubling) between FY2000 and FY2003, and have stabilized since. Currently about 3 million acres are treated annually. However, 75 million acres of federal land are at high risk, and another 156 million acres are at moderate risk, of ecological damage from catastrophic wildfire. Since many ecosystems need to be treated on a 10-35 year cycle (depending on the ecosystem), current treatment rates are insufficient to address the problem.

A third issue is the federal role in protecting nonfederal lands, communities, and private structures. In 1994, federal firefighting resources were apparently used to protect private residences at a cost to federal lands and resources in one severe fire. A federal policy review recommended increased state and local efforts to match their responsibilities, but federal programs to protect nonfederal lands have also expanded, reducing incentives for local participation in fire protection.

Finally, post-fire rehabilitation is raising concerns. Agency regulations and legislation in the 109
th Congress focused on expediting such activities, but opponents expressed concerns that this would restrict environmental review of and public involvement in salvage logging decisions, leading to greater environmental damage. Legislation was introduced but not enacted in the 110th Congress to provide alternative means of addressing post-fire restoration in particular areas. The large wildfires to date in 2011 have reignited concerns about post-fire rehabilitation.

Date of Report: July 5, 2011
Number of Pages: 29
Order Number: RL33990
Price: $29.95

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