Lightning bolts rained across the West in August, sparking hundreds of wildfires in California, Oregon, Idaho and Montana and pushing the cash-strapped Forest Service to the brink.
The service had at that point spent $967 million battling wildfires that had torched more than 3.4 million acres in 2013. Its emergency fund exhausted, it had about $50 million left -- enough for about half a week.
That's become business as usual for an agency that's run out of wildfire suppression funds seven times in the last 12 years. So Chief Tom Tidwell did what his predecessors had done: He raided the agency's nonfire accounts to make up the shortfall.
"I regret that we have to take this action and fully understand that it only increases costs and reduces efficiency," Tidwell wrote in an Aug. 16 memo to his top deputies. He ordered that $600 million be borrowed, halting contracts, grants, and noncritical agency travel and hiring.
The so-called fire borrowing -- a result of insufficient appropriations -- has happened with increasing frequency as wildfires have grown more intense and more homes are built in the forest. Unless Congress acts, wildfire costs will sap more money from the timber- and hazardous-fuel-reduction programs that are supposed to curb wildfire costs, in a vicious cycle.
"This approach to paying for firefighting is nonsensical and further increases wildland fire costs," said a letter in June to Obama administration officials from Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho).
Lawmakers blame the White House for failing to request adequate wildfire and hazardous fuels funding, but Congress has been blamed, too, because it holds the agency's purse strings.
As frustration mounts, a growing number have proposed that some wildfires be fought using emergency disaster money, which would relieve some pressure on the Forest Service's nonfire programs.
Consider this year's 250,000-acre Rim fire, which tore through the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park, costing federal agencies $128 million to quell. At least four other fires cost more than $35 million each.
"For whatever reason, lightning strikes that start forest fires are treated differently from a funding perspective than hurricanes and tornadoes and other natural disasters," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said at a July event in Fort Collins, Colo. "We think there should be greater alignment."
So far, no specific proposals have emerged.
Sources say the White House Office of Management and Budget is working closely with Robert Bonnie, the Agriculture Department's new undersecretary for natural resources and environment, and the Interior Department on a funding solution.
OMB did not respond to an email, and the Forest Service would not discuss specifics of the talks. Congressional aides said the administration is being tight-lipped.
"It's clear that the administration needs to come up with a new strategy for how to budget for wildland fire," Wyden said in an emailed statement. "There are options out there, such as mandatory funding for wildland fire suppression and designating some wildland fire funding as emergency funding -- as is done with other disasters."
Since 2002, the Forest Service has run out of wildfire funding seven times and has had to borrow more than $3 billion from nonfire accounts. Congress paid back all but $400 million, but not without significant disruptions to agency programs.
The Forest Service this year siphoned $505 million from budgets for research, capital improvement and reforestation accounts, among other programs, according to a memo obtained by Greenwire.
Up to $170 million came from the Knutson-Vandenberg trust fund, which uses timber receipts to plant new trees and improve fish and wildlife habitat. An additional $200 million came from Restoration of Improvements, which uses proceeds from legal settlements to repair damage from strip mines or human-caused wildfires.
Wildfire borrowing has gobbled up funds for hazardous fuels reduction projects in New Mexico; fire research projects in Montana; and the construction of wildfire barracks, engine bays and a station in California, according to a 2004 Government Accountability Office report.
"It's hugely disruptive to the organization, and it's just nuts!" said Dale Bosworth, who was chief of the Forest Service during most of the George W. Bush administration.
Congress had hoped to prevent so-called fire borrowing in 2009 when it passed the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement Act, known as FLAME.
The law established emergency reserve accounts for the Forest Service and the Interior Department to fight large or complex wildfires or for when they ran out of appropriated suppression funds.
The bill's sponsors said those accounts were intended to be funded "above and beyond" the 10-year average cost to suppress wildfires. The idea is that they would grow in low and average fire years and offer emergency relief during severe seasons -- preventing the need to borrow.
Yet OMB has failed to embrace the law, according to lawmakers of both parties and former appropriations aides. The $315 million it requested for FLAME in 2014 was part of the 10-year average cost of suppression, not above it.
"Despite congressional intent, OMB has forced the agencies to implement the FLAME Act in a manner that makes it ineffective," Wyden, Murkowski, Udall and Risch said in the June letter. "Thus, fire borrowing has continued to occur."
But appropriators are also guilty of underfunding FLAME, observers said.
Congress put $474 million into FLAME in 2010 and $350 million in 2011. But mild fire seasons in both those years prompted appropriators to later yank $400 million from the account.
"They put the money in for a couple of years, but then they quit and took it out," Bosworth said.
It proved shortsighted. In 2012, more than 9.3 million acres burned in the United States, the third most since modern record keeping began in the 1960s. The fires were massive, with 51 fires exceeding 40,000 acres and 14 exceeding 100,000 acres, the Forest Service said.
The agency was forced to borrow $440 million from accounts including recreation and timber management to make up for the shortfall, Tidwell said. Congress weeks later paid it back.
"History shows that whenever you get a pot of money like [FLAME], OMB says, 'Give it back,'" said Frank Gladics, a former forestry aide to Murkowski who now lives in Idaho. "OMB always looked at it as a honey pot that the agency would someday steal money out of to do something other than fire."
OMB for many years did not trust the Forest Service to spend its money effectively, hence its hesitance to fully fund FLAME, Gladics said.
But the Forest Service must also exercise spending restraint, Gladics said. The agency has a tendency to spend everything in its budget -- even in light fire years -- for fear that Congress the next year will reduce appropriations.
"My view of fixing this is getting OMB to quit robbing FLAME, to have Congress say, 'We'll put money in the FLAME account,' and for agencies to say if this isn't a bad year, we're not going to spend all the money, we'll put some into FLAME," Gladics said.
According to one Senate Democratic aide, OMB's reluctance to support FLAME is not political, but rather due to "a few career folks ... who have really been entrenched."
Wildfire disaster fund?
Fire borrowing is exacerbated by the inherently tricky task of predicting how much money will be needed to fight wildfires.
The White House rarely requests adequate suppression funding to begin with. That's because the 10-year average -- which both the administration and appropriators use to set the suppression budget -- lags behind the growing cost of fire.
Over the past decade, agencies have spent on average a third more for suppression than the budget request, according to the Senate Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee draft fiscal 2014 report.
It's spurred calls from lawmakers including Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, to base wildfire costs on a three-year average instead.
"If we're wrong and we put too much money in there, give them the authority to roll the money over to the next year," he said. "After a while, if we're consistently wrong and we build up an account, make that into an emergency account and take a chance and drop the budget the next year."
The Appropriations panel's report, which is yet to be marked up, would require the White House to propose "new options to the Congress for estimating suppression costs, which should include options to budget for portions of wildfire response as disaster or emergency spending."
Chris Topik, a forestry expert for the Nature Conservancy who formerly served as aide to the House Appropriations Committee, said Congress should establish a separate "disaster prevention fund" that would fund emergency wildfire response just as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Disaster Relief Fund helps communities recover after floods, tornadoes or hurricanes.
The idea is backed by the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, which represents timber contractors, as well as the National Association of State Foresters, National Ski Areas Association and several other groups.
"Fire borrowing is a bad process and needs to be eliminated by either more FLAME dollars or categorizing wildfires as FEMA disasters," said Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council in Portland, Ore.
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who chairs the House subcommittee that funds the Forest Service and Interior, told the Idaho Statesman in August he wants to scrap FLAME and pay for wildfires on an emergency basis.
"Fire is every bit as much an emergency as a tornado or a hurricane," Simpson said.
But proposals to fund wildfire suppression using FEMA money have hit political roadblocks in the past, according to one former Democratic Senate aide.
While the Forest Service's resource management personnel supported it, its fire staff members hated the idea for fear it would erode their influence over the budget.
Congressional politics were also at play. Moving wildfire suppression funding to FEMA could require a shift in the allocation of appropriations dollars to the Subcommittee on Homeland Security.
"Chairmen do not like to give up their power," the aide said. There were also concerns with keeping the Forest Service accountable for the money it spends.
But bundling wildfires into a FEMA disaster account could go a long way toward protecting the Forest Service's core stewardship, logging and recreation programs, supporters said. Congress is also more swift to replenish FEMA's disaster funding, because it affects a much broader swath of Congress, than it is replenishing the Forest Service's budget, which affects mostly Westerners.
'This is not going to be changing'
In the last 10 years, fire suppression costs have increased from 13 percent of the Forest Service's budget to 40 percent last year.
Over the past 15 years, the agency's fire staff has more than doubled to 12,000, while staffing for managing the national forests has dipped 35 percent to 11,000.
Some have begun calling the agency the "Fire Service."
The impacts of fire borrowing are expected to intensify as the Forest Service's timber trust funds are drawn down, forcing it to borrow more from its appropriated accounts.
Congress is also taking longer to pass supplemental funding bills, with House and Senate appropriators disagreeing over whether emergency spending needs to be offset. The Forest Service waited two months to be reimbursed for this year's fire transfer.
Meanwhile, the cost of fighting fires is projected to soar.
Climate change and drought have caused wildfires to burn faster, hotter and across larger landscapes, and have extended the wildfire season an additional two months since the 1970s, the Forest Service said.
In addition, the number of housing units within half a mile of a national forest grew from 484,000 in 1940 to 1.8 million in 2000 -- a trend expected to continue. It's made it riskier for the Forest Service to let fires burn naturally, which in turn contributes to the buildup of dangerous fuels.
"Today, the fires are longer and more complex," Tidwell told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee this summer. "The fire seasons, they're hotter, they're drier and they're longer. And from everything we see, this is not going to be changing."
Lawmakers say the Forest Service must do a better job thinning the forests of hazardous fuels, which stems the rising cost of suppression.
"There's inertia, they're risk-averse," DeFazio said. Over the last five years, the Forest Service has conducted fuel reduction on 16 million acres but used accelerated permitting authority on only 1 million of those acres, he said.
The Forest Service's $4.9 billion request for fiscal 2014 included $201 million for hazardous fuels removal near communities, a decrease of $116 million from current levels. Interior's budget request would reduce hazardous fuels funding by $87 million.
That's OMB's fault, DeFazio said. "They don't believe fuel reduction is cost-effective," he said. "I don't know what planet they're living on."
But here, too, Congress also shares in the blame, because it has the ultimate say on how these programs are funded.
"My love of the Constitution is that Congress has the power of the purse here," Topik said. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
Want to read more stories like this?
E&E is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy politics and policy.
Click here to start a free trial to E&E -- the best way to track policy and markets.