During a summer of harsh air quality and record-breaking heat, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are increasingly showing an interest in supporting efforts to prevent, suppress, and recover from wildfires.
Nowhere is this trend more evident than in the funding bills moving through the House and Senate Appropriations committees. The House’s Fiscal Year 2024 Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies funding bill, being considered today by the full committee, includes:
- $2.11 billion for the Forest Service’s Wildland Fire Management ($1.17 billion above the FY23 discretionary level);
- $2.3 billion for the Wildfire Suppression Operations Reserve Fund;
- $4.5 million for the Joint Fire Science Program; and
- $12 million for Fire Facilities to address the problem of inadequate or unaffordable housing facing wildland firefighters.
The accompanying House Interior Appropriations Committee report also includes provisions on monitoring wildfire smoke, supporting collaborative forest management, and encouraging the BLM and Forest Service to continue prescribed burning. Given the House-GOP’s general commitment to cutting spending in the aftermath of the debt ceiling resolution, the Senate’s version of the Interior spending bill will make for an interesting comparison once it’s released.
The House Agriculture Appropriations Committee report includes language encouraging the design and construction of fire and fuel breaks, as well as a directive for USDA to examine opportunities within the Rural Community Facilities program to permit the construction of dormitories for firefighters to address the lack of workforce housing. The Senate’s report was filled with Congressionally Directed Spending projects (read: earmarks) funding fire stations through the Rural Community Facilities program.
There are also interesting provisions on wildfire resources in notable authorizing legislation. This year’s FAA reauthorization legislation includes language directing FAA and the Forest Service to develop a plan on the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) by public entities in wildfire response, detection, mitigation, and suppression operations. Also, during the House Rules Committee’s consideration of the bill earlier this week, amendments were approved to direct the FAA to promulgate a rule allowing restricted category aircraft performing a wildfire suppression operation to transport firefighters to and from the site of a fire, and to clarify that federal rulemakings on the use of UAS in wildfire prevention should include research.
Another notable authorization to look out for will be the Farm Bill. With jurisdiction over the Forest Service and the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003, the bill is sure to include wildfire-related provisions, particularly on forest management. For example, the 2018 Farm Bill included provisions promoting cross-boundary wildfire mitigation and wildfire resilience projects.
On the appropriations front, a number of questions loom: Will both chambers bill able to pass all 12 spending bills before the end of the fiscal year (thereby avoiding a mandatory one percent cut)? Where will funding levels land if House and Senate appropriators are able to reach an agreement? Or in the event of a continuing resolution? With less than 20 legislative days left until the end of the fiscal year, spending level disparities will have to be ironed out quickly.