Wildfire Suppression Spending: Background, Issues, and Legislation in the 115th Congress

Congress has directed that the federal government is responsible for managing wildfires that begin on federal lands, such as national forests or national parks. States are responsible for managing wildfires that originate on all other lands. Although a greater number of wildfires occur annually on nonfederal lands, wildfires on federal lands tend to be much larger, particularly in the western United States. The federal government’s wildfire management responsibilities—fulfilled primarily by the Forest Service (FS) and the Department of the Interior (DOI)—include preparedness, prevention, detection, response, suppression, and recovery. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also may provide disaster relief, mostly for certain nonfederal wildfires.

Congress provides appropriations for wildfire management to both FS and DOI. Within these appropriations, suppression operations are largely funded through two accounts for each agency: Wildland Fire Management (WFM) accounts and Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act (FLAME) reserve accounts. If the suppression funding in both of these accounts is exhausted during a fiscal year, FS and DOI are authorized to transfer funds from their other accounts to pay for suppression activities; this is often referred to as “fire borrowing.” Congress also may provide additional funds for suppression activities through emergency or supplemental appropriations. Thus, for any given year, total suppression appropriations to FS or DOI may be a combination of several sources: the WFM accounts, the FLAME accounts, additional funding as needed through transfers, and/or supplemental appropriations.

Overall appropriations to FS and DOI for wildland fire management have increased considerably since the 1990s. A significant portion of that increase is related to rising suppression costs, even during years of relatively mild wildfire activity, although the costs vary annually and are difficult to predict in advance. FS and DOI spent an estimated $2.9 billion combined on suppression in FY2017, the most spent in one year to date and surpassing the previous high—achieved in the previous year, FY2016—by nearly $700 million. FS and DOI have frequently required more suppression funds than have been appropriated to them. This discrepancy often leads the agencies to transfer funds from other accounts, prompting concerns that increasing suppression spending may be detrimental to other agency programs. In response, Congress has enacted supplemental appropriations to repay the transferred funds and/or to replenish the agency’s wildfire accounts. Furthermore, wildfire spending—like all discretionary spending—is currently subject to procedural and budgetary controls. In the past, Congress has effectively waived some of these controls for certain wildfire spending, but it has not consistently done so in more recent years. This situation has prompted some to explore providing wildfire spending outside of those constraints.

The 115th Congress is considering legislation to address these issues. All of these bills (H.R. 2862, S. 1842, H.R. 2936, and S. 1571), directly or indirectly, would allow for some wildfire suppression funds—subject to certain criteria—to be provided outside the statutory limits on discretionary spending, either through the annual appropriations process or through supplemental appropriations. Under those proposals, varying levels of wildfire funding would not need to compete with other programs and activities that are subject to the statutory limits. However, the amounts that could be provided for wildfire suppression operations under these proposals—both within and outside of the spending limits—would be subject to future appropriations decisions by Congress. These proposals also could affect certain funding mechanisms that have been used to provide additional spending for major disaster recovery (e.g., hurricanes, earthquakes).