Obama Vows Wildfire Funding Change as Drought Hits States

President Barack Obama promised the governors of eight western U.S. states that they’ll get the aid they need to deal with droughts and said he wants to change the way funds to battle wildfires are doled out.

Obama told governors of states including Arizona and Colorado during a White House meeting yesterday that the budget proposal he’s scheduled to unveil next week will change how wildfire suppression is paid for to give states more certainty that they’ll have the resources.

The president will ask Congress to pay the cost of battling such fires the same way the U.S. pays to mitigate other natural disasters, with funding coming outside budget caps, White House press secretary Jay Carney said.

“Unfortunately, the current way that the government pays for fire suppression and preparedness costs is ill-suited to the increasing severity and cost of fires,” Carney said yesterday at a briefing.

In each of the past two years, the Departments of Agriculture and Interior have been forced to rely on transfers from other programs to fund fire suppression, he said.

Parts of the west have been gripped by drought, with California one of the hardest hit states. Along with crop losses in the state that’s the biggest U.S. agricultural producer, the historic drought has made California a tinderbox. There have been at least 606 wildfires so far in 2014, more than three times the five-year average over the same period, according to the state Forestry and Fire Protection Department.

Climate Change

When he visited California’s Central Valley on Feb. 14, Obama also linked the drought to climate change and said local, state and federal governments must start preparing for the impact of more extreme weather events.

The funding change will be proposed in the spending blueprint Obama will submit to Congress March 4 for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The White House last week said the budget will add $56 billion for domestic and defense programs while seeking more revenue through taxes. He also is including $1 billion for a Climate Resilience Fund to help mitigate the impact of warmer temperatures.

Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, National Governors Association chairwoman and a Republican, talked about states that are being hit by drought and wildfires when she addressed governors assembled in Washington for an annual meeting. Obama, when he spoke to the governors group yesterday, said the firefighting spending change “is an idea that’s supported by both Democrats and Republicans.”

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