Before October, Congress had to vote to approve additional funding for wildfires. More frequent fires changed that.

Until recently, the federal government lacked a dedicated pot of money to fight wildfires. That’s particularly alarming, considering the escalating costs of dealing with these disasters, as well as recent assessments about the urgent need to address the impacts of climate crisis.

In California, for example, wind-fueled wildfires have gotten so bad that utility companies have planned power outages to stop fires from spreading. A climate report from the state government noted that at the current rate of greenhouse gas emission increases, the state could see 50 percent more fires by 2100. Under that scenario, the average area burned in the state would increase by 75 percent.

But thanks to an omnibus spending bill signed by President Trump in 2018, the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior got access this October to regular federal funding to accommodate firefighting needs.

When it comes to providing resources to areas experiencing wildfires, the federal government typically pulls funds from a special account earmarked for disaster relief. Congress usually adds more money into that account after major climate events, but this method of retroactively funding relief for disasters can make it difficult for agencies to spend money on other important projects, such as maintaining campgrounds and other tools that aim to prevent wildfires in the first place.

That all changed last year, when Congress passed what is now known as the “Fire Funding Fix.” This new budget structure provides an additional $2.25 billion to federal agencies fighting and preventing wildfires, and includes, for the first time, a fire suppression account that is specifically designated for fighting wildfires.

In other words, federal agencies won’t have to pull money from other projects or wait for Congress to retroactively give them more money.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the cost to address wildfires in 2017 surpassed $2.5 billion.

“The previous funding structure really did a number on the work that federal agencies were able to get done,” said Center for American Progress analyst Ryan Richards. “This is a big step in the right direction.” 

In the past, agencies had to shut down work in other areas in order to cover the cost of fighting wildfires.

“They have had to stop spending in other accounts, like vegetation management or roads and infrastructure accounts,” Richards explained. “They’ve had to put a hold on those projects until they could get more funding in another year.”

While many conservationists have praised the Fire Funding Fix for giving government authorities the resources they need to protect public lands, some have also raised concerns about certain provisions that were included in the legislation. For example, one rider allows for logging projects up to 3,000 acres with the intention of removing hazardous fuels to move forward without environmental review.

“It’s just a green light for abuse,” Brett Hartl, governmental affairs director of the Center for Biological Diversity, told High Country News last year. “Three thousand here, 3,000 there. Soon you are talking a lot of acres.”

In a brief for the Center for American Progress published in June 2018, Richards pointed out that while the “wildfire funding fix could truly be a transformational moment” for agencies tasked with protecting public lands, it could also become “a glide path to large-scale logging that does little to protect communities or make forests more resilient.”

Richards said that it’s important to remember, though, that wildfires are more than a forest problem. “What I think we’re coming around to acknowledging is that fire has always been a part of the landscape, and what’s really important is protecting people where they live and trying to keep folks out of the most at-risk places.”