The Forest Service just had to divert another $250 million to fight wildfires

Top administration officials wrote Congress this week to urge it–once again–to change the way it budgets for firefighting in light of the disastrous wildfire season in the western United States.

The Agriculture Department just informed lawmakers this week that it will have to transfer $250 million to fighting the forest fires now raging, which brings this fiscal year’s emergency spending total to $700 million. Unlike other disaster spending, caused by tornadoes and hurricanes, the federal government must stay within existing budget constraints and divert money from other programs to pay for firefighting.

In a letter to 16 Senate and House members, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, and White House Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan wrote that the current funding method is no longer sustainable. The administration has proposed allowing agencies to bust their discretionary budget caps when fire suppression exceeds 70 percent of the 10-year average, but Congress has yet to approve the budgeting change.

“With the dramatic growth in wildland fire over the last three decades and an expected doubling again by mid-century, it only makes sense that Congress begin treating catastrophic wildfire as the natural disaster that it is,” the three wrote.

In order to pay for additional firefighting expenses, Agriculture and Interior have been diverting funds that ordinarily would go toward recreation, research, watershed protection, rangeland management and forest restoration.

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