Friday, January 22, 2021
Jan. 22, 2021

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‘Fire borrowing’ likely amid intense blazes


WASHINGTON — Lawmakers thought they fixed the U.S. Forest Service’s “fire borrowing” problem earlier this year. But the breadth and intensity of fires scorching the West this year is likely to prompt the agency to raid other accounts one last time before budgetary changes go into effect in fiscal 2020.

The issue could come to a head once again on Capitol Hill in the coming weeks and months, as lawmakers and the administration weigh the need for another infusion of taxpayer dollars ahead of the midterm elections.

The Forest Service had approximately $196 million in fire suppression funds remaining as of Aug. 6. But given the rate of spending so far this year, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has notified Congress that the agency is preparing a $555 million transfer from other accounts to ensure it can keep fighting the fires.

“If the fire season continues as it has, the agency expects to enter into fire transfer,” said Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Jones. She added that the amount necessary could fluctuate depending on the “severity of fires through the end of the fiscal year.”

A similar funding problem occurred last year. But rather than letting the Forest Service drain other accounts, including funds set aside for preventive actions, appropriators included $526.5 million to backfill agency coffers in a supplemental disaster aid package. That law also provided $50 million for Interior Department fire management activities.

It’s not clear yet if Congress will open the federal purse strings again to help with recovery or fire suppression efforts. But worsening fires or hurricanes walloping the East Coast could suddenly drain emergency funds. And California’s riskiest fire season could still be on the way: the hot, dry Santa Ana winds can whip up greater fire threats in September and October.

A senior GOP aide told CQ the Office of Management and Budget hasn’t communicated any need for extra funds yet. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said on Wednesday its Disaster Relief Fund balance was approximately $27.5 billion, with another $7 billion on the way when the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Current projections indicate that there should be sufficient money available to fund emergency needs through fiscal year 2019, barring another catastrophic disaster. Wildfire-affected states can access that fund for disaster preparedness activities as well as for rebuilding if a major disaster is declared due to fires.

Additionally, the Interior Department has spent $300 million out of fire prevention accounts this fiscal year, the department said in an email. But given the pace and intensity of fires it may need to tap additional funds.

“Based on projections of current fire activity, DOI will require access to emergency-designated fire suppression funding” from last fall’s supplemental and transfers of available prior-year funds, agency spokeswoman Amy Krause said in an email.