Whenever anyone is placed in charge of anything, making sure the place doesn’t burn down has got to be among the most important tasks.
The U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior have been spending ever larger portions of their ever-tightening budgets on fighting fires that occur in the forests and range lands they are responsible for. The firefighting budget not kept up with the need, and for the past couple of decades those agencies have had to borrow from — and never repay — accounts that were supposed to pay for all kinds of other operations and projects — just to keep everything from burning up.
The Forest Service, for example, notes that it spent only about 13 percent of its total budget on firefighting back in 1991. This year, it expects to spend half of its $5 billion just on efforts to keep more trees, plants, animals and encroaching buildings from going up in flames.
Democrats and Republicans, the executive branch and Congress, have said they know that cannot go on. That’s why there was widespread support earlier this year for something called the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014, a bipartisan bill that would have created for firefighting the same kind of emergency fund that exists to cover the costs of other natural disasters, such as earthquakes and hurricanes.
That bill would have allowed the government to sock away as much as $2.7 billion a year for seven years into an account to be used only to fight fires on federal land. No more borrowing from monies that Congress had intended to go for buying or maintaining land, improving roads or other facilities or, most troubling of all, from efforts to manage land so that it would be less likely to catch fire in the future.
But that bill, co-sponsored by all four members of Utah’s House delegation, was among many that saw no action at all before Congress decamped for its summer vacation.
Sponsor Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, has been fighting off rumors that he’s abandoned his bill. And, if he does continue to champion it, he will have to overcome accusations of big-spending from fellow Republicans and live down the handicap that President Obama supports his legislation.
The cost of fighting fires, like everything else, keeps going up. Even if more blazes are left to burn themselves out, as some environmentalists argue that they should, a perfect storm of climate change and the increased number of human residences along the edges of wild lands will still place a huge demand on the system.
And put more lives at risk.
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