Fire suppression legislation continues to work its way through Congress as new adjustments to the omnibus, or multi-department spending, bill add more than $20 million for firefighting in the next 10 years. Although the Bighorn National Forest has not seen a significant fire in a couple years, resources out of Sheridan have been used for fires in Montana and throughout the United States.
John Haynes, assistant director of the creative media and visitor services for the United States Forest Service office out of Washington D.C., explained the amendments as a “clear statement from Congress that dramatic measures were needed to address the increasing costs and impacts from wildfire.”
Before the complete budget authority begins in 2020, Haynes said Congress appropriated an extra $500 million for fire in 2018 while keeping other non-fire programs whole through 2019.
Wildland fire suppression costs exceeded $2 billion in the 2017 fiscal year. On average, the Bighorn National Forest spends anywhere from $250,000 to $1,000,000 per year on fire suppression.
The USFS and local officials started placing a high emphasis on suppression efforts through a new act introduced by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., in the Wildfire Prevention and Mitigation Act of 2017. The Sheridan press previously reported that the act works to remove federal litigation for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management agencies. This helps expedite and prioritize forest management and prevention efforts, leading to less budget adjustments for fire suppression efforts in the future.
The adjustments to the omnibus would also give the agency new forest management tools.
“(The tools are) an equally strong indication that they want to see an increased pace of forest restoration to protect forests and communities from catastrophic fire,” Haynes said. “These new fire funding and forest management authorities will greatly help the Forest Service to achieve healthier forests and all the benefits they deliver to the public.”
While Haynes sees the benefit in Congress supplying more funds to fire suppression efforts, neighboring Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., believes more should be done in trying to fix the problem rather than throw money at it.
“While the reforms in the omnibus are a step in the right direction, they only begin to address the issue of devastating wildfires,” Gianforte said in a March media release. “There’s more to do to protect our communities and livelihoods from catastrophic wildfires, including ending the practice of frivolous lawsuits from environmental extremist groups that tie up critical projects and threaten our way of life.”
When the 2017 act came out, Bighorn National Forest fire management officer Jon Warder said the BNF crews coordinate with state, county and other federal agencies to conduct prevention measures. While the federal employees cannot comment on pending legislation, the BNF employees continue to work on community education and provide fire management tips for citizens both in prevention and safety for the forest. The BNF website lists how to report a fire, how to protect a home and other resources to stay up-to-date on current fire statuses.
Adjustments to the omnibus bill successfully passed through the House of Representatives. The Senate read through the legislation a second time last September and placed it on the Senate Legislative calendar under general orders. If it passes without amendment through the Senate and President, funds will be appropriated starting this year, with full funding starting in 2020.