WASHINGTON, D.C. - During a U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) underscored the need to increase wildfire suppression efforts and continued his call for wildfire funding reform. The hearing focused on a review of previous wildfire seasons to inform and improve future federal wildland fire management strategies. The committee heard testimony from U.S. Government Accountability Office Director for Natural Resources and Environment Team Anne-Marie Fennell.
Last month, Senator Heinrich initiated a briefing from U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell at the U.S. Forest Service Fire Desk and Incident Command Center on the agency's wildfire suppression efforts and work to protect vital water resources. According to the Forest Service, this year was its most expensive fire season on record. For the first time ever, more than half of the Forest Service's budget went toward suppressing wildfires. Just 20 years ago, fire suppression made up just 16 percent of the agency's budget. Because fighting fires has eaten up more and more of its budget, the Forest Service has been forced to decrease its staff in non-fire suppression programs by 39 percent over the last fifteen years, or by around 7,000 employees that could otherwise be focused on forest health and fire prevention.
In the hearing, Senator Heinrich discussed how forest restoration could pay off economically by helping reduce the cost of fire suppression.
Later in the hearing, Senator Heinrich also discussed that the current 10-year average budget to fight wildfires isn't working effectively. He highlighted that nine out of the last 11 years the Forest Service was 40 percent below actual costs during that period and underscored that climate shifts are causing wildfire seasons to become increasingly unpredictable.
Senator Heinrich is a cosponsor of S.235, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2015, which would treat the largest fires -- roughly 1 percent of annual fires -- as natural disasters and fund firefighting efforts from a disaster account similar to the one that funds hurricane and other natural disaster relief efforts. Senator Heinrich is also the lead sponsor of S.1780, the Restoring America's Watersheds Act, a bill he introduced to improve the health and resiliency of watersheds in national forests. The legislation would prioritize fire-impacted watersheds and encourage partnerships with non-federal stakeholders to invest in forests that provide important water resources.
A list of witnesses, testimony, and the archived webcast of today's hearing is available here.