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    Severe Fire Season Poised to Burn Through Forest Service's Budget

    By By Elizabeth Harball, E&E reporter
    June 10, 2014, 5:54:07 AM EDT

    As hundreds of firefighters battled to save central Oregon's largest city from a wildfire yesterday, the Obama administration persisted in its efforts to overhaul how the federal government pays for such costly disasters.

    The Two Bulls Fire was first detected Saturday as two separate blazes. As of yesterday, it had consumed nearly 6,800 acres near Bend, Ore., and was 25 percent contained. No structures were lost or damaged, but about 2,000 homes were threatened and 50 homes were placed under an evacuation notice.

    Late last night, the Deschutes County Sheriff's Office announced that the fire was human caused. But Lisa Clark, a public information officer for the Central Oregon Interagency Dispatch Center, said high winds yesterday and unusually dry conditions fueled Two Bulls' ferocious growth.

    "Our fuel on the ground ... actually is as dry right now as it normally would be in July," Clark said.

    Much of Oregon is currently in drought, and the region's winter snowpack fell significantly below normal this year, the Department of Agriculture reported in its June 1 "Oregon Basin Outlook Report."

    Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley (D) yesterday announced the Federal Emergency Management Agency had approved the state's request for emergency funding. The fire's estimated cost is currently $2.2 million.


    This hefty price tag is one among many currently straining the federal firefighting budget, USDA showed in a report released yesterday. In it, the agency provides a lengthy, state-by-state list of projects that didn't get funding because the money was used for wildfire suppression efforts instead.

    In May, the Forest Service and the Interior Department said that dry conditions across the West could drive this year's wildfire costs up to $1.8 billion, $470 million more than is currently allocated (ClimateWire, May 2). Today, 40 percent of the Forest Service's budget goes toward fighting fires, compared with 15 percent in the 1990s. Sucking money from prevention programs

    As a result, money needed to combat wildfires must come out of coffers usually dedicated to other forestry programs such as those reserved for restoration, public education, road maintenance and even fire prevention activities.

    In Oregon, for example, a $192,000 project to replace two failing culverts in Siuslaw National Forest was not completed in 2013, leaving the road at risk and possibly reducing water quality in streams used by Coho salmon. A $72,000 project in Colorado to clean up after bark beetle damage was also deferred last year, the report states, affecting 50-100 miles of trail.

    In a release accompanying the report, USDA championed a measure in President Obama's 2015 budget request to Congress, which would allow agencies to use FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund once the costs to fight blazes exceeded 70 percent of the 10-year average (ClimateWire, March 5).

    "Until firefighting is treated like other natural disasters that can draw on emergency funding, firefighting expenditures will continue to disrupt forest restoration and management, research and other activities that help manage our forests and reduce future catastrophic wildfire," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in the release.

    The plan is opposed by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), however, and the Congressional Budget Office questions whether it may make it difficult for Congress to stay within its spending limits set by the Budget Control Act (E&E Daily, May 13).

    Witnesses spoke in support of the president's proposal last week at a hearing hosted by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

    In his written testimony, Kevin O'Connor, assistant to the general president for the International Association of Firefighters, called the current federal funding mechanism for fighting wildfires "bad public policy" that is "quickly becoming unsustainable."

    "No doubt, changes in climate, population growth and development into the wildland urban interface contribute to the wildfire threat, but regardless of its root cause, the scourge of wildfires has become epidemic and will continue to imperil our communities and first responders if we do not act," O'Connor said.

    Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.

    E&E Publishing is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy issues. Click here to start a free trial to E&E's information services.

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