Washington_More federal dollars would be dedicated to fighting major wildfires under legislation passed by the House on Wednesday.
The measure, approved by voice vote, would establish an emergency federal fund for suppressing catastrophic fires.
Federal spending on wildfires has jumped significantly in recent years, with nearly half of the Forest Service's budget devoted to fire suppression and prevention. Two percent of the most devastating fires account for 80 percent of the federal firefighting costs.
To pay for the increased expenditures, the Forest Service has resorted to borrowing funds from other programs and agencies.
"This act is important because this fund will prevent the soaking up of all the other dollars that should be used for prevention," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
The money would be used specifically for catastrophic fires and would be separate from the funds budgeted every year for wildfire suppression. The emergency fund would be authorized annually based on the average cost of fighting wildfires over the preceding five years.
In 2007, federal firefighting costs came to nearly $1.8 billion, with nine million acres burned across the United States.
In just the past few weeks, wildfires have burned more than 800 square miles in California.
"For the last decade, the U.S. has experienced a growth in the destructive nature of fire seasons that have taken American lives, eliminated homes and businesses and scorched thousands of acres of our treasured public lands," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the Natural Resources Committee and one of the bill's sponsors.
The bill - the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act, or FLAME - also requires the Interior Department and Agriculture Department to develop a comprehensive strategy for dealing with wildfires. It now moves to the Senate for consideration.
The bill is H.R. 5541.
On the Net:
For bill text: http://thomas.loc.gov/
House of Representatives: http://www.house.gov/