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California Wildfires Headed to Capitol Hill

Funding fire suppression a looming issue

A firefighting helicopter drops water on a wildfire.
A firefighting helicopter drops water on a wildfire. (Mario Tama/Getty Images file photo)

Lawmakers thought they fixed the U.S. Forest Service’s “fire borrowing” problem earlier this year. But the breadth and intensity of fires scorching the West this year is likely to prompt the agency to raid other accounts one last time before budgetary changes go into effect in fiscal 2020.

The issue could come to a head once again on Capitol Hill in the coming weeks and months, as lawmakers and the administration weigh the need for another infusion of taxpayer dollars ahead of the midterm elections — and California’s devastating fires have already become a campaign issue.

The Forest Service had approximately $196 million in fire suppression funds remaining as of Aug. 6. But given the rate of spending so far this year, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has notified Congress that the agency is preparing a $555 million transfer from other accounts to ensure it can keep fighting the fires.

“If the fire season continues as it has, the agency expects to enter into fire transfer,” said Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Jones. She added that the amount necessary could fluctuate depending on the “severity of fires through the end of the fiscal year.”

A similar funding problem occurred last year. But rather than letting the Forest Service drain other accounts, including funds set aside for preventive actions, appropriators included $526.5 million to backfill agency coffers in a supplemental disaster aid package. That law also provided $50 million for Interior Department fire management activities.

It’s not clear yet if Congress will open the federal purse strings again to help with recovery or fire suppression efforts. But worsening fires or hurricanes walloping the East Coast could suddenly drain emergency funds. And California’s riskiest fire season could still be on the way: the hot, dry Santa Ana winds can whip up greater fire threats in September and October.

To Combat California Fires, Lawmakers Calling For Additional Federal Aid

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A senior GOP aide told CQ the Office of Management and Budget hasn’t communicated any need for extra funds yet. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said on Wednesday its Disaster Relief Fund balance was approximately $27.5 billion, with another $7 billion on the way when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Current projections indicate that there should be sufficient money available to fund emergency needs through fiscal year 2019, barring another catastrophic disaster. Wildfire-affected states can access that fund for disaster preparedness activities as well as for rebuilding if a major disaster is declared due to fires.

In Shasta County, where a major disaster has already been declared, the Carr fire has ripped through 177,450 acres with just 48 percent contained as of last week. Twenty-five California lawmakers from both parties, led by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, sent a letter to Trump last week in support of state officials’ request for major disaster declarations for three other counties: Lake, Mendocino and Napa.

Additionally, the Interior Department has spent $300 million out of fire prevention accounts this fiscal year, the department said in an email. But given the pace and intensity of fires it may need to tap additional funds.

“Based on projections of current fire activity, DOI will require access to emergency-designated fire suppression funding” from last fall’s supplemental and transfers of available prior-year funds, agency spokeswoman Amy Krause said in an email.

Wildfire funding

Congress in March passed a law that changed the way the federal government pays to combat wildfires.

Lawmakers attached language to the fiscal 2018 omnibus appropriations bill to allow spending cap exemptions to cope with destructive fire seasons. Starting in fiscal 2020, a budget cap adjustment would allow spending up to $2.25 billion, rising to $2.95 billion in fiscal 2027. That would, lawmakers said, help prevent “fire borrowing” in the future. The omnibus, enacted in March, also contained $1.95 billion for fiscal 2018 fire suppression and prevention accounts across the Forest Service and Interior Department.

Both the House and the Senate fiscal 2019 Interior-Environment spending bills recognize the lag before the cap adjustments actually go into place with extra appropriations to cover any spike in fire suppression spending in the coming fiscal year. The increased funding should avoid the need for fire transfers, according to the bill reports.

Across the Forest Service and Interior Department, the Senate version would set aside $2.45 billion for wildfire suppression costs, an increase of about $500 million from fiscal 2018. The House bill would fund suppression activities at the 10-year average plus an additional $500 million to bring the total to $2.05 billion.

On top of the fire borrowing fix, the March spending package included what Republicans deemed “limited” forest management changes. For example, it allows for a shorter environmental impact analysis on certain fire prevention projects, such as removal of downed trees near power lines and installation of fuel and fire breaks, or strips of land where flammable vegetation is eliminated or reduced to stop fires from spreading.

“That is likely the only legislative action in a while on this, or at least for this Congress,” a Senate Democratic staffer said. “We are sort of in an oversight mode as to how they use those authorities we provided in the omnibus.”

Republicans were upset the package did not contain more active forest management changes that would make it easier for vegetation removal activities and open up forests to more logging. House Republicans passed such a measure in 2017 with little Democratic support. Those efforts remain ongoing, a House Natural Resources GOP spokesman said, including to potentially attach the measure to the farm bill or a stopgap appropriations bill this fall.

“If Senate Democrats hadn’t done everything possible to kill meaningful forestry reforms the past few years, we wouldn’t be in today’s situation. The fires will continue to burn as long as the Senate fiddles,” the spokesman said.

President Donald Trump said via Twitter over the past week that he would work to streamline the environmental approval process for more active forest management. Democrats complain that to achieve Republicans’ policy aims, bedrock environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act would have to be rolled back.

Political flamethrower

If extra funds end up being unnecessary, wildfires may become more of a political flamethrower for Democrats than an appropriations issue for Congress.

At least one California Republican’s past votes on disaster aid have become the focus of a Democratic-aligned political action committee, Red to Blue California. The PAC announced a $175,000-plus ad buy against Rep. Tom McClintock R-Calif., last week.

Those include votes against wildfire-related spending in a 2017 disaster supplemental package that passed the House, as well as the 2018 spending cap deal, which contained tax breaks for wildfire victims and additional emergency funds to aid in the recovery effort. McClintock opposed the measures due to fiscal concerns.

“Don’t get burned by McClintock again, vote November 6,” a narrator warns in one PAC ad as the camera pans over wildfire ruins.

McClintock’s district spans across a large chunk of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California, where numerous fires have been raging including the Donnell Fire which has ripped through at least 23,824 acres and remains just 5 percent contained, according an update Friday morning on the federal wildfire monitoring site InciWeb. A larger blaze affecting some of his constituents is the Ferguson fire, which has burned 95,544 acres but was 80 percent contained as of Friday.

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