Wildfire Suppression:

Funding Transfers Cause Project Cancellations and Delays, Strained Relationships, and Management Disruptions

GAO-04-612: Published: Jun 2, 2004. Publicly Released: Jun 3, 2004.

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In 2003, wildfires burned roughly 4 million acres, destroyed over 5,000 structures, took the lives of 30 firefighters, and cost over $1 billion to suppress. The substantial expense of fighting wildfires has exceeded the funds appropriated for wildfire suppression nearly every year since 1990. To pay for wildfire suppression costs when the funds appropriated are insufficient, the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior have transferred funds from their other programs. GAO was asked to identify (1) the amount of funds transferred and reimbursed for wildfire suppression since 1999, and the programs from which agencies transferred funds; (2) the effects on agency programs from which funds were taken; and (3) alternative approaches that could be considered for estimating annual suppression costs and funding wildfire suppression.

The Forest Service and Interior transferred over $2.7 billion from other agency programs to help fund wildfire suppression over the last 5 years. On average, the Congress reimbursed agencies about 80 percent of the amounts transferred. Interior primarily used funds from its construction and land acquisition accounts. In recent years, the Forest Service used funds from many different programs; while before 2001, it transferred funds from a single reforestation program/timber sale area restoration trust fund. Transferring funds for wildfire suppression resulted in canceled and delayed projects, strained relationships with state and local agency partners, and difficulties in managing programs. These impacts affected numerous activities, including fuels reduction and land acquisition. Although transfers were intended to aid fire suppression, some projects that could improve agency capabilities to fight fires, such as purchasing additional equipment, were canceled or delayed. Further, agencies' relationships with states, nonprofit groups, and communities were negatively impacted because agency officials could not fulfill commitments, such as awarding grants. Transfers also disrupted the agencies' ability to manage programs, including annual and long-term budgeting and planning. Although the agencies took some steps to mitigate the impacts of transfers, the effects were widespread and will likely increase if transfers continue. To better manage the wildfire suppression funding shortfall, the agencies should improve their methods for estimating suppression costs by factoring in recent changes in the costs and uncertainties of fighting wildfires. Also, the Congress could consider alternative funding approaches, such as establishing a governmentwide or agency-specific reserve account.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: H.R. 5541, the Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement Act (FLAME Act), passed the House in July 2008. The FLAME Act would provide an alternative funding approach for wildland fire suppression, by establishing a fund to pay the costs of catastrophic emergency wildland fire suppression activities that are separate from amounts annually appropriated to the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior for the predicted annual workload for wildland fire suppression activities. The Senate is now considering this legislation, although it has not yet voted on it.

    Matter: To reduce the potential need for the Forest Service and Interior to rely on transferring funds from other programs to pay for wildfire suppression on public lands, the Congress may wish to consider alternative funding approaches for wildfire suppression, such as, but not limited to, establishing a governmentwide or agency-specific emergency reserve account.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Forest Service has changed its process for identifying funds available for transfer, and now relies on field officials such as Regional Foresters and Station Directors to identify available funds in their jurisdictions. In doing so, they are to consult with their local units (such as individual national forests) to ensure that the units' programs of work are appropriately considered in the fire transfer effort. While the guidance does not specifically mention payroll information, we believe that any consultation with local forest officials will, by nature, include consideration of salary needs. This recommendation is therefore closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: In addition, to more accurately determine the amount of funds available to transfer for wildfire suppression, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the Chief of the Forest Service to estimate remaining salary needs for the fiscal year by consulting with local forest officials to obtain more current, specific payroll information, so that the risk of programs going into deficit can be reduced.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOI does not track accomplishment shortfalls. An Interior official stated that the agency transfers funds from only two accounts--construction and land acquisition--and when funds are transferred from these accounts, there are little or no impacts because the funds are for long-term projects and likely would not have been spent during the current year. Further, there are no relevant performance measures for the construction and land acquisition accounts, meaning that shortfalls would be difficult to quantify.

    Recommendation: To help minimize the impacts of wildfire funding transfers on other agency programs and to improve the agencies' budget estimates for wildfire suppression costs, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should direct the Forest Service and Interior agencies to work together to consistently track accomplishment shortfalls caused by funding transfers across all programs and include this information in annual accomplishment reports to provide agency decision makers and the Congress with better information for making wildfire suppression transfer and funding decisions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Forest Service has taken significant steps toward tracking the impact of fire transfers and resulting accomplishment shortfalls. Citing GAO's report on fire transfers, and noting the need to "better understand and communicate the effect of the fire transfer on our projects and programs," the agency has issued guidance for standard reporting on the amount of funds transferred and the specific projects or activities that were curtailed because of the transfers. However, the agency has not included the resulting information in annual accomplishment reports, or otherwise provided such information to the Congress. Given that doing so was an essential element of our recommendation, we consider the recommendation closed/not implemented.

    Recommendation: To help minimize the impacts of wildfire funding transfers on other agency programs and to improve the agencies' budget estimates for wildfire suppression costs, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should direct the Forest Service and Interior agencies to work together to consistently track accomplishment shortfalls caused by funding transfers across all programs and include this information in annual accomplishment reports to provide agency decision makers and the Congress with better information for making wildfire suppression transfer and funding decisions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Beginning in 2004, the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station has been conducting annual formal assessments of both the Forest Service's and Interior's forecasting models, comparing predicted to actual expenditures and identifying areas for improvement.

    Recommendation: To help minimize the impacts of wildfire funding transfers on other agency programs and to improve the agencies' budget estimates for wildfire suppression costs, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should direct the Forest Service and Interior agencies to work together to annually conduct a formal assessment of how the agencies' methods for estimating annual suppression costs and their monthly forecasting models performed in estimating wildfire suppression costs relative to actual costs, to determine if additional improvements are needed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Beginning in 2004, the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station has been conducting annual formal assessments of both the Forest Service's and Interior's forecasting models, comparing predicted to actual expenditures and identifying areas for improvement.

    Recommendation: To help minimize the impacts of wildfire funding transfers on other agency programs and to improve the agencies' budget estimates for wildfire suppression costs, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should direct the Forest Service and Interior agencies to work together to annually conduct a formal assessment of how the agencies' methods for estimating annual suppression costs and their monthly forecasting models performed in estimating wildfire suppression costs relative to actual costs, to determine if additional improvements are needed.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  6. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The agencies continue to use the 10-year average of fire suppression costs in estimating their annual fire suppression budget needs.

    Recommendation: To help minimize the impacts of wildfire funding transfers on other agency programs and to improve the agencies' budget estimates for wildfire suppression costs, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should direct the Forest Service and Interior agencies to work together to improve their methods for estimating annual wildfire suppression costs by more effectively accounting for annual changes in costs and the uncertainties associated with wildfires in making these estimates, so that funding needs for wildfire suppression can be predicted with greater accuracy.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  7. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The agencies continue to use the 10-year average of fire suppression costs in estimating their annual fire suppression budget needs.

    Recommendation: To help minimize the impacts of wildfire funding transfers on other agency programs and to improve the agencies' budget estimates for wildfire suppression costs, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior should direct the Forest Service and Interior agencies to work together to improve their methods for estimating annual wildfire suppression costs by more effectively accounting for annual changes in costs and the uncertainties associated with wildfires in making these estimates, so that funding needs for wildfire suppression can be predicted with greater accuracy.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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