Washington_Lawmakers stunned by a dramatic jump in federal spending on wildfires say they have found a way to pay for the next disaster.
A bill approved Thursday by the House Natural Resources Committee would set aside up to $1 billion to pay for fighting major wildfires such as those that devastated Southern California last fall.
In recent years, the Forest Service and other federal land management agencies have overspent their budgets for fire suppression and sought emergency funding from Congress. Lawmakers have long complained that the Forest Service and other agencies routinely submit budgets that are inadequate to pay for wildfires, since officials are confident that additional funding will be provided - or spending in other areas curtailed - if needed for firefighting.
"Agencies of the Interior Department and the Forest Service have been forced to 'rob Peter to pay Paul' by borrowing funds from other agency accounts to cover the escalating costs of fire suppression," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the natural resources panel. "This unnecessary and unfair diversion of funds has severely undermined the overall missions of the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other agencies," affecting everything from trail maintenance to education and land acquisition.
Rahall and two other Democrats sponsored the firefighting bill, which they dubbed the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act, or FLAME.
A fund created by the bill would be separate from usual agency budgets and would be used only for emergencies such as catastrophic wildfires, Rahall said. Funding would be authorized based on the average amount spent to fight wildfires for the past five years. Agencies would continue to pay for most fires through normal budget channels.
A spokeswoman for the Forest Service said the agency has not taken a position on the bill, which is co-sponsored by Reps. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., chairman of the subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, and Norm Dicks, D-Wash., chairman of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee.
Federal spending on wildfires has increased dramatically over the past decade, with nearly half of the Forest Service budget now devoted to fire suppression and prevention. The Forest Service and Interior Department spent nearly $1.9 billion last year fighting fires, an amount officials expect to exceed this year.
Nine million acres burned across the United States last year, and experts see little reason to believe 2008 will be any different. Climate change and drought are creating longer and more intense fire seasons, while a century of fire suppression has made the forests dense and susceptible to burning, experts say.
Last October, nearly 2,200 homes in California were destroyed in simultaneous wind-driven blazes that charred about 800 square miles from north of Los Angeles south to the Mexican border. The fires caused more than $2.2 billion in private insurance claims and killed 10 people.
On the Net:
The bill is H.R. 5541. Congress: http://thomas.loc.govMatthew Daly, AP Writer © 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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