Heinrich Visits U.S. Forest Service Fire Desk & Command Center To Discuss Wildfire Funding Reform

PHOTO: U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich receives a briefing from U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell and other U.S. Forest Service officials at the U.S. Forest Service Incident Command Center in Washington, D.C., October 7, 2015. [High-Resolution Photo

WASHINGTON, D.C. - U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, visited the U.S. Forest Service Fire Desk and Incident Command Center to receive a briefing from U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell on the agency's wildfire suppression efforts and work to protect vital water resources. Senator Heinrich discussed the need to protect, restore, and improve the health of watersheds in our national forests and the urgency for wildfire funding reform.

"New Mexicans know first-hand the impacts catastrophic wildfires have on our communities and lands.  That is why we need to fix our broken budget process that often forces the Forest Service to choose between fighting wildfires and restoring forest health to help prevent those very same large, costly fires," said Sen. Heinrich. "The Forest Service used to spend 16 percent of its budget on fire suppression, but they now spend well over 50 percent of their budget on suppression each year.  This is why we must pass legislation that pays for catastrophic fire suppression in the same way we pay for other natural disasters, while protecting funds for stewardship contracts and other critical forest health programs. We can't choose between fighting fires and preventing them -- we must do both."

The U.S. Forest Service is an agency under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). During fire season, the Forest Service works to minimize the negative impacts of wildfire to life and property while ensuring a high level of safety for firefighters.

This year has been the most expensive Forest Service fire season on record. According to the USDA's review of the 2015 fire season:

  • Fire suppression cost the Forest Service more than $1.7 billion in Fiscal Year 2015 (FY 2015). At the height of the season, the cost of wildland fire suppression was as much as $243 million in a week.
  • The Forest Service, in coordination with our fire response partners, mobilized over 27,000 firefighters along with numerous airtankers, helicopters, fire engines and other assets through the agency's integrated, interagency suppression efforts.
  • Every State and Puerto Rico, along with the military and international support, has provided people and equipment this season to help manage over 50,000 wildfires.
  • Nearly 9 million acres burned across the United States and destroyed over 2,500 single residences. The greatest losses, however, involved the fatalities of 13 wildland firefighters who paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect the lives of others.

Senator Heinrich is 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.

Senator Heinrich is also 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.