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Government may run short of money to fight wildfires

May 6, 2014 - 12:05am

WASHINGTON — The federal government expects to fall $470 million short of the funding it needs to fight wildfires this year, according to official projections.

The Interior Department and the U.S. Forest Service said in a report to Congress last week that they expect to spend an estimated $1.8 billion fighting wildfires. Lawmakers allotted $1.4 billion.

Robert Bonnie, the undersecretary for natural resources and environment with the Agriculture Department, said the Forest Service will have to borrow money from other areas, such as forest restoration and recreation, if the shortfall occurs.

The departments have resorted to “fire borrowing,” or diverting money from other programs to pay for fire-fighting efforts, during seven of the past 12 years, officials said.

The report cited drought conditions in California and throughout the West as factors that could lead to an especially dangerous fire season in 2014. Last year, 34 wildland firefighters died in the line of duty as flames burned 4.1 million acres and destroyed more than 1,000 homes, the agencies said.

One of the most extreme examples occurred in Arizona, where 19 elite firefighters died while battling a blaze about 100 miles from Phoenix.

President Barack Obama’s budget for fiscal 2015 proposes changing how the government pays for subduing the most severe wildfires. The plan would allow the Interior and Agriculture departments to tap a special disaster-relief account when the costs exceeds their annual budgets.

“The president’s budget proposal would provide a common-sense framework that gives the flexibility to accommodate peak fire seasons — but not at the cost of other Interior or Forest Service missions, or by adding to the deficit,” said Rhea Suh, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary of policy, management and budget.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has proposed bills that track with Obama’s request. The sponsors include Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Reps. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore.

Fire seasons have increased by 60 to 80 days over the past three decades, with the annual amount of burned acreage more than doubling to more than 7 million acres during that time, the report said.

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