In nod to climate change, Obama will propose shift in funding wildfire costs

New York Times New ServiceFebruary 25, 2014 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s annual budget request to Congress will propose a significant change in how the government pays to fight wildfires, administration officials said, a move that they say reflects the ways in which climate change is increasing the risk for and cost of those fires.

Obama is following the lead of Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Mike Simpson, who have introduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act in the Senate and the House, along with Oregon Democrats Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Kurt Schrader.

The wildfire funding shift is one in a series of recent White House actions related to climate change, as Obama tries to highlight the issue and build political support for his administration’s more muscular policies, like curbing carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. On Monday, Obama described his proposal at a meeting in Washington with governors of Western states that have been ravaged recently by severe drought and wildfires.

The proposal will ask Congress to pay the costs of fighting extreme wildfires in the same way it finances the federal response to disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes, the officials said. When unpredictable events like Hurricane Sandy are destructive enough to be declared disasters by the president, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is authorized to exceed its annual budget and draw on a special disaster account. The account is adjusted each year to reflect the 10-year average cost of responding to such events.

Obama’s budget proposal would create a similar exception for the Interior and Agriculture Departments, which have agencies that are responsible for wildfire response. In recent years, as wildfires have become more frequent and intense in the Western United States, the cost of fighting the fires has soared.

In real dollar terms, adjusted for inflation, the Forest Service and Interior Department spent an average of $1.4 billion in annual wildfire protection from 1991 to 1999, according to a report by Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group. But that spending has more than doubled — from 2002 to 2012, the agencies spent an average of $3.5 billion to fight wildfires.

In a conference call with reporters last summer, the agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, said, “When you take resources to suppress fires, you sometimes have to take it from the very resources that you would use to restore property or to prevent fires to begin with. And that just basically shifts the risk to a much longer term and more serious risk.”

A series of scientific studies have warned that increasing carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels could cause the planet to warm by more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, leading to rising sea levels, stronger storms and more extreme droughts. A study published last year by Forest Service researchers concluded that wildfires were expected to increase 50 percent across the United States under a changing climate, and over 100 percent in areas of the western United States by 2050.

In his second term, Obama has taken on the politically contentious challenge of tackling climate change. At the center of his climate policy is a set of controversial Environmental Protection Agency regulations to curb carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants - rules that could shutter hundreds of such plants. As he tries to build political support for the rules, Obama has sought to make the case that the costs of damages from climate change will be far greater than the costs of mitigating climate change.

Obama’s budget request, which he will deliver to Congress next month, will include several other direct references to the costs of climate change, according to a White House official. This month, Obama announced that his budget would include a request from Congress for a $1 billion “climate resiliency fund.”

While there is intense resistance from Republicans and some Democrats in Congress to most of Obama’s climate policies, the wildfire funding proposal has bipartisan support. A coalition of environmentalists, sportsmen and timber producers has lobbied in favor of the Crapo and Simpson bills.

The Statesman’s Rocky Barker contributed to this report.

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