WASHINGTON - Rep. Jared Polis on Wednesday proposed allowing states to use a portion of the money Congress sets aside for wildfire-recovery efforts on projects aimed at preventing fires in the first place.
The idea behind the Boulder Democrat's plan is to encourage states to do work before the fire season gets under way to minimize the risk so communities aren't as badly hit when the fires do strike.
Bipartisan legislation introduced by Polis and three other House members would allow states to receive up front 15 percent of the money Federal Emergency Management Agency typically spends to help communities rebuild from fire damage. The bill wouldn't require Congress to increase fire-prevention funding, as some Western-state senators are pushing for. It would allow FEMA to shift some money from a fire-suppression account to provide grants to states undertaking preventive projects.
"Funding wildfire mitigation is cost effective because it is proven to greatly reduce the damage caused by wildfires," Polis said in a statement. "Unfortunately, drought and record-high temperatures have increased the threat of wildfires in Colorado, so this bill is essential to proactively minimize risk before wildfires start."
The bill's co-sponsors are Republican Reps. Scott Tipton of Colorado and Paul Cook of California, and Democratic Rep. Raul Ruiz, also of California.
The Obama administration is under pressure from western lawmakers on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to spend more on preventive efforts such as removing dead trees and thinning the underbrush. Supporters say such efforts could slow the flames, making it easier for firefighters to control them.
The White House's 2014 budget request sought $296 million for the so-called hazardous-fuels reduction program, sharply lower than the $502 million Congress set aside in fiscal 2012. Critics like Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden say that's bad policy because the fires are getting bigger and more frequent out West and communities are a greater risk than ever.
Administration officials say they must cut the federal fire-prevention program because of tight finances. They argue Congress doesn't provide enough money to do preventive work and pay the soaring costs of fighting wildfires.
The National Forest Service transferred $600 million from elsewhere in its budget to pay for fire suppression during fiscal 2013, which ended Sept. 30, and the Interior Department transferred $36 million. The budget bill Congress approved this month repaid the $636 million in addition to ending the partial government shutdown and preventing a potential default on the nation's $17 trillion debt.
Contact Raju Chebium at email@example.com; Twitter: @rchebium
(© Gannett Co., Inc. 2013. All Rights Reserved)