Murkowski Raises Concerns with Fire Suppression Program

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, today encouraged the Obama administration and congressional appropriators to change the way they fund the U.S. Forest Service’s fire suppression activities.
At a hearing Tuesday of the full Senate energy panel to consider the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act, Murkowski said the bill would not act as designed unless the administration and Senate Appropriations Committee harmonize their fire budget requests with the FLAME Act (S. 561).
Roughly 3 percent of the 7,000 to 8,000 fires that the land management agencies respond to annually account for 85 percent of the agencies’ suppression costs. These few extreme wildfires have put the agencies budgets at risk and forced them to borrow from their other programs in nine of the last 13 years.
The Forest Service spends more than half of its overall budget on fire programs.
“The escalating costs of fire management are of significant concern because of their impact on the federal budget and the effect they have on public land management programs,” Murkowski said. “These impacts are the most serious at the Forest Service, where fire-related expenditures are demanding a growing portion of that agency’s budget.”
The FLAME Act seeks to address the problem by creating a permanent reserve fund to cover the cost of suppressing the largest, most expensive fires. Routine fire suppression activities would continue to be provided for within the service’s budget based on a 10-year rolling average.
The president’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2010, however, recommends more than $1 billion for the traditional fire preparedness and suppression accounts and a relatively small amount for the reserve account.
“We need to reverse how we fund fire suppression on federal land,” Murkowski said. “The majority of the funding needs to be directed to the reserve account to cover the cost of the big fires.”
A fire suppression reserve account needs to be funded in such a manner that it can be built up over time to deal with these high-cost fires, Murkowski said. That may take several years to accomplish, given current economic conditions.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Murkowski also brought up what she sees as “mission creep” at the Forest Service with fire suppression crews playing the role of first responders for non-fire related emergencies, even traffic accidents. 
“I fear that some in the Forest Service want to become the ‘Masters of Disaster Response’ and I’m not sure that this should be the task of our land management agencies,” Murkowski said. “This committee and Congress need to stop this mission creep or we will need to double the size of these agencies and their budgets.”
A third area of concern for Murkowski is the safety of the Forest Service’s aging fleet of firefighting aircraft, many of which need to be replaced.
“The problem is coming and we need to find a solution before the wings start falling off,” Murkowski said.
The FLAME Act was first introduced in the Senate on March 10, by Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-NM, Murkowski, and 12 other cosponsors. An identical bill, H.R. 1404 was introduced on the same day in the House of Representatives. The House version passed, with a number of amendments, on March 26, by a vote of 412 to 3.
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