Politicians want government to budget for catastrophes

An Air Tanker drops retardant on a fire alonf Hwy 13, north of Rifle on Sept 4th, 2012.

Not nearly enough money is spent on wildfire mitigation and suppression in Colorado or the nation, a U.S. and state senator say.

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., has joined other senators in calling on the federal government to come up with a more sensible way to budget for wildfires.

At the same time, state Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, made a similar call to Gov. John Hickenlooper and the Colorado Legislature to do the same.

While Udall says the federal government doesn’t properly budget for how it will prevent and fight wildfires, and then doesn’t put enough toward either, King said the state doesn’t make it enough of a priority.

“Using wildfire mitigation funds to backfill firefighting costs robs Peter to pay Paul, and progressively leaves us in worse shape every year to contain fires,” Udall said. “Our forests and public land managers know it is cheaper to mitigate wildfire risks than to fight costly blazes, but our budgeting process does not reflect this fact.”

King, meanwhile, said the state has fought back some pretty devastating and deadly wildfires in recent years, but he predicts the state hasn’t come close to seeing the worst of it.

“As tragic as the Black Forest fire was and those innocent, precious lives that were lost and the 508 homes that burned, that was not a catastrophic fire,” he said. “A catastrophic fire will not only change Colorado potentially for the foreseeable future, but a catastrophic fire will change Colorado for a future generation.”

It isn’t just burning trees or a relatively few number of homes tucked between them, King said. It’s the state’s watersheds, transportation networks and power transmission lines that are at risk.

In a letter Udall sent to the secretaries of Agriculture and Interior and the Office of Management and Budget, he and three other senators from Western states on both sides of the political aisle ask that they pay special attention in future years to “adequately” funding both mitigation and fire suppression.

The letter, also signed by U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and James Risch, R-Idaho, asks the federal government to end its practice of “fire borrowing,” or taking money from non-fire programs to fund suppression efforts.

That budgetary practice in recent years has resulted in cuts to programs to reduce fire risks, particularly where homes and the wilderness meet, the senators said.

The letter also criticizes Management and Budget’s practice of budgeting fire funds by using a 10-year rolling average to estimate costs.

“In a time when fire activity and costs are steadily rising, the 10-year rolling average budget formula that the agencies have used to set the annual budget request for suppression expenditures has translated into shortfalls in available suppression funds nearly every year since the mid-1990s,” the letter reads.

According to a memo from the U.S. Forest Service to Udall’s office, that agency was allocated $1 billion for preparedness programs for the 2012 fiscal year, but slightly half that amount to battle actual blazes.

Actual costs to suppress fires that year was $1.4 billion, the memo says.

Regardless, the Obama administration is proposing a 31 percent cut in those fire prevention programs for the next fiscal year, which begins in October.

That lack of funding, particularly for the federal government’s air firefighting fleet, is what got King involved in the issue.

During this year’s legislative session, he introduced a bill calling on the state to create its own air fleet, modeling it and a coordinated statewide firefighting response effort after a long-standing program in Cali-fornia.

King asked the state to allocate just a few million dollars toward the program, at least enough to get it off the ground.

The bill was approved and signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, but the Legislature allocated no money for it.

“The fact is that this is not enough of a priority in the administration’s mind, and obviously in the Legislature’s mind, that they would use available resources and new money on other priorities,” King said. “We are very ill-prepared for this fire season.”

During the last fiscal year, which ended last week, the state allocated about $17 million for all firefighting efforts, including mitigation programs and suppression preparedness, which includes contracting with private pilots to be on call when fires erupt.

This year, the Legislature increased that amount and created new programs aimed at mitigation.

This year’s budget includes a new $9.8 million matching grant program to reduce hazardous forest fuels in areas where more human development has occurred. Additionally, lawmakers created a new $500,000 Wildfire Preparedness Fund, some of which is to be used to create a more comprehensive wildfire preparedness plan.

The Legislature also increased by $3.5 million the state’s Wildfire Emergency Response Fund, which is to be used to pay the initial costs of battling a new blaze.

Still, King said that’s not nearly enough, and he isn’t hopeful that state officials will learn from the devastating fires that have ripped through the state this year and last.

“Based on what I’ve seen so far, past performance is the best indication of future performance,” he said. “We didn’t learn because I don’t see an air tanker based out of Jeffco, Grand Junction or Colorado Springs (airports). We spent $48 million fighting fires last year, and we have every bit the issue of a worse fire season this year. I can’t think of one proactive thing that we are doing, rather than just being reactive.”

King recently was appointed to serve on the Legislature’s Wildfire Matters Review Committee, a 10-member panel that is to address wildfire prevention and mitigation.

The committee will review state policies and resources as it works toward finding ways to reduce the wildfire threat. It will recommend legislation aimed at decreasing wildfire risks in residential neighborhoods in forest and mountain areas of the state.


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