The aerial firefighting industry in the U.S. already is bracing for another bad season in 2016, and the concerns have a Cabinet secretary picking a fight with Congress.
The industry is winding down from one of the most destructive wildland fire seasons ever experienced in the American west, according to the American Helicopter Services and Aerial Firefighting Assn. “The industry is anticipating an early start to next year’s fire season, as dry conditions in much of country continue to prevail," said the group’s executive director, George Hill.
That prospect has the U.S. Agriculture Dept. secretary fuming. Many in Washington were pleased with the Dec. 18 bipartisan law approving $1.1 trillion in federal spending through Sept. 30 (the end of the current fiscal year). Not Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service and said in a Dec. 17 letter to congressional leaders that he was “extremely disappointed that Congress did not enact a comprehensive fix to the wildland firefighting budget."
A group of senators and congressmen worked on such a fix, but it didn’t make it into the spending bill. That bill “fails to provide a long-term solution to address the critical and growing problem of paying for catastrophic wildfire,” wrote Vilsack. Instead, he said, it “leaves the Forest Service hobbled by the current untenable budget situation.”
The bill will give the Forest Service $1.6 billion for this fiscal year, a $600 million increase from last year. But that service spent $1.7 billion on firefighting this year. Congress authorized Vilsack to borrow money from other Agriculture funds to cover temporary shortfalls, with the promise that it would make up the difference.
But Vilsack wrote that he would not go along, saying he “will not authorize transfers” of funds. “The American public can no longer afford delays to forest restoration and other critical Forest Service activities caused by annual fire transfers.” If congressional appropriations are “not sufficient to cover fire suppression costs” this year, he said, “Congress will need to appropriate additional funding on an emergency basis.”