California asks Congress to accelerate plan establishing reserve fund for fighting wildfires
By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO Calif. (Reuters) – With federal funds for fighting wildfires running low, officials in California on Thursday called on Congress to move forward on a stalled plan to set up an emergency reserve fund for battling the extreme blazes anticipated this fall.
The call by U.S. Representative John Garamendi, a Democrat whose district near Sacramento includes parts of three national forests, the state’s top firefighter and others comes days after the U.S. Forest Service said it would have to dip into money meant for fire prevention and other activities in order to have enough on hand to fight fires.
“We find ourselves in a vicious cycle,” Garamendi said at a news conference in the city of Davis, near Sacramento. “When we run out of money to fight wildfires, and that happens frequently, we dip into the very funds that help prevent wildfires.”
Concern about low funds for firefighting are growing amid increasing danger from wildfires throughout the western United States, and a fire season that is reaching its peak amid a devastating drought that has left dry, combustible fuel ready to burn.
Over the summer, wildfires have raged out of control in Oregon, Washington and California. Scientists say conditions will only worsen due to drought, climate change and a reluctance to thin the forests due to concerns about the environment.
This year, fire suppression is expected to cost up to $1.6 million, Forest Service chief Thomas Tidwell said in a letter to regional directors last week, more than the $995 million appropriated in the federal budget.
As a result, Tidwell said, the agency would transfer money from other accounts for use in fighting fires.
A bill to set up an emergency fund for fire suppression has been stalled in the Republican-controlled Congress for months, in part over questions about how to pay for it.
Ken Pimlott, chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention (CalFire) said California already has an emergency fund, and urged Congress to adopt one at the federal level.
“An emergency or reserve fund, similar to what California utilizes to address the extraordinary costs of wildland firefighting, is important so that emergency firefighting costs in federal responsibility areas do not impact the federal funds budgeted for forest health, vegetation management and fire prevention program activities,” Pimlott said.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Sandra Maler)