When the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service went broke for firefighting and fire-suppression work, it borrowed money from programs such as removal of dried brush and downed trees that were meant help prevent the fires in the first place, The Washington Post reported Sunday. Congress reimbursed the Agriculture Department's Forest Service and the Interior Department with $400 million from the 2013 Continuing Resolution, allowing continuation of fire prevention work.
State forestry experts and environmental groups greeted the reimbursement as good news but also criticized Congress for providing at the start of the fiscal year about half of the $1 billion it cost to fight this year's fires.
This year's wildfire burn was nearly 8 million acres at the end of August, about the time that the firefighting budget ran out.
"They knew they were running out of money early on, in May," said Chris Topik, director of North American Forest Restoration for the Nature Conservancy. "They were telling people in May, 'Be careful; don't spend too much [on prevention].'"
Because the prevention funds were raided, efforts to prevent fires dropped "further and further behind," Jake Donnay, senior director of forestry for National Association of State Foresters, told the Post.
"Even with the appropriations they get, they're not able to catch up," he said. "We're thankful that Congress did act to repay them this time, but that hasn't always been the case."
Congress created the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement fund, known as FLAME, three years ago in an apparent answer to the problem, the Post said.
In mild fire seasons when the Forest Service and the Interior Department don't have to spend all their funds to fight fires, what was left would go into the FLAME account to pay for suppression when fire seasons consume more funds.
Congress allocated $415 million in 2010, FLAME's first fiscal year, the Post said. But in 2011, Congress took at least $200 million from the fund and shifted it into the general treasury to use for other expenditures.
Since 2002, $2.2 billion was transferred from other accounts for fire suppression when the budget fell short, records provided by the Forest Service to the Post indicated.