Over the past several years, we have seen the spread and occurrence of wildfires increase significantly. Deadly wildfires threaten our homes and communities and turn lives upside down.
USDA continues to do all that we can to protect people, homes and our forests in the face of fire. Just this week, we announced four new airtanker additions to the U.S. Forest Service’s next-generation firefighting fleet, which brings the total amount of aircraft to 21 large air tankers (with opportunities to add additional aircraft, if needed) and more than 100 helicopters. These new aircraft will enter service in the coming weeks and support over 10,000 firefighters during this year’s wildfire season.
We also announced new tools to help states combat insect and disease infestations that weaken forests. National forest areas in 35 states received an official designation that will provide USDA, working collaboratively with our partners, additional tools and flexibility to more efficiently treat areas impacted by insects and disease and reduce the incidence and severity of future wildfires.
These resources are critical to helping USDA and our partners better combat wildfires. Yet, the cost of wildfires continues to grow—from 13 percent of the Forest Service budget 10 years ago to over 40 percent in 2014.
A recent report shows that the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior are projected to exceed its annual firefighting budget to fight wildfires this season, much like it has in the past several years. In fiscal year 2012 and fiscal year 2013, the Forest Service had to transfer $440 million and $505 million respectively from other accounts to pay for fire suppression. Over the last 12 years, a total of $3.2 billion was shifted from other programs that accomplish important forest health objectives.
When that happens, we are forced to engage in what’s known as “fire transfer,” where funding for fire suppression is taken away from critical forest management activities—an equally essential part of our efforts to protect our nation’s forests, our families and our communities.
That is why it is so critical that Congress approve the Administration’s 2015 budget proposal that creates a special disaster relief cap adjustment for use when the costs of firefighting exceeds the budget.
The new budget proposal would solve the recurring problem of having to transfer money from forest restoration and other Forest Service accounts to pay the costs of fighting wildfires. While USDA is committed to spending the necessary resources to combat wildfire, this new proposal would allow us to perform the critical restoration work needed to prevent future fires and better protect people, homes and our forests in the long run.