Cantwell Urges Final Approval of $275 Million in Emergency Funds to Fight Forest Fires
WASHINGTON, DC – Thursday, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) called on Congress to give quick final approval to $275 million in emergency wildfire suppression funding passed by the Senate earlier this month. The Senate approved the much-needed funding on September 7 as part of the Defense Department Appropriations Act. Now, as appropriations leaders prepare to meet in a conference committee to work out differences between House and Senate versions of the legislation, Cantwell is urging them to preserve the funding. The Cantwell-sponsored emergency funding measure would provide $175 million to the Forest Service and $100 million to the Interior Department to help combat wildfires.
“Without these funds, we’ll run out of firefighting money in a matter of days,” said Cantwell. “This year’s fires were the worst in decades, and we have a responsibility to step up and deliver the resources needed to help our wildland firefighters do their jobs.”
In a letter sent Thursday to conference committee leaders, Cantwell and eight other senators stressed the importance of the emergency funding given this year’s devastating fire season.
“This has been a very busy year for wildland firefighters, who have had to contend with 82,599 fires on 8,968,517 acres across the country to date,” the senators wrote. “But fiscal year 2006 appropriations were calculated based upon the ten-year average of 60,726 fires on 4.9 million acres. As a result, the agencies not only have exhausted their FY2006 appropriations, but they also are expected to exhaust in the coming days the $500 million emergency reserve fund that Congress set aside in 2004. When they do, they will be forced to borrow funds from other agency accounts, in what the Chief of the Forest Service has called ‘the chaos of transfers.’”
Without additional funds, the federal government will have to either cut back available firefighting resources or take money from other important programs, leaving these initiatives under-funded. As recently as 2004, Congress added nearly $500 million to the defense appropriations bill for wildfire funding. This year, Cantwell is pushing a similar approach.
There are currently six active wildfires in Washington state that have burned more than 347,000 acres. Washington state’s largest ongoing fires are the Tripod Complex Fire, which has burned more than 175,000 acres in north-central Washington, and the Columbia Complex Fire, which has burned 109,249 acres in southeast Washington. Nationwide, the 2006 fire season is already the largest fire season since 1960, with more than 82,000 fires and over 8.9 million acres burned. The 2006 season, though still ongoing, is already 79 percent more active in terms of acres burned than the 10-year average.
[The text of the senators’ letter follows bellow]
We are writing to urge you to include in the conference report for the Department of Defense Appropriations bill (H.R. 5631) the $275 million in emergency supplemental funding for wildfire suppression passed by the Senate. The Forest Service and Department of the Interior are expected to exhaust their appropriated funds for wildfire suppression well before the end of this fiscal year, and this money will be necessary to cover those expenses and repay funds that were borrowed from other accounts.
This has been a very busy year for wildland firefighters, who have had to contend with 82,599 fires on 8,968,517 acres across the country to date. But fiscal year 2006 appropriations were calculated based upon the ten-year average of 60,726 fires on 4.9 million acres. As a result, the agencies not only have exhausted their FY2006 appropriations, but they also are expected to exhaust in the coming days the $500 million emergency reserve fund that Congress set aside in 2004. When they do, they will be forced to borrow funds from other agency accounts, in what the Chief of the Forest Service has called “the chaos of transfers.”
The General Accountability Office reported on this chaos in 2004, concluding that “despite Forest Service and Interior efforts to minimize the effects on programs, transferring funds caused numerous project delays and cancellations, strained relationships with state and local agency partners, and disrupted program management efforts. . . . In some cases, these cancellations and delays increased costs and the time needed to complete the projects. Although the agencies transferred funds to help suppress wildfires, doing so actually resulted in delays of some projects that were intended to reduce fire risk and improve firefighting capabilities . . . .” (GAO-04-612).
The $275 million passed unanimously by the Senate as amendment number 4915 will help avoid these impacts and, to the extent there are any funds left over, will make an important contribution to replenishing the emergency reserve account. The FY2005 Defense Appropriations bill carried $500 million in emergency wildfire suppression funding, and it appears to be the only vehicle for promptly appropriating this important funding this year. Like you, we are committed to setting priorities and believe in wise use of taxpayer dollars. This is a true emergency, and we believe strongly that we must respond and support these critical firefighting efforts. We therefore urge you to include this emergency funding in the conference report.
Sincerely,Senator Jeff Bingaman
Senator Maria Cantwell
Senator Harry Reid
Senator Ron Wyden
Senator Ken Salazar
Senator Max Baucus
Senator Patty Murray
Senator Barbara Boxer
Senator Dianne Feinstein
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