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Politics, government and public life for Southern California

President Obama proposes new funding to fight wildfires (Update)

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Despite forecasts for rain across California this week, it’s likely to be another dangerous – and costly – wildfire season. President Obama on Monday announced a plan to pay the bill for fighting catastrophic fires by tapping into a fund that pays for the federal response  to hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes.

The president unveiled his plan at a meeting with Western governors at the White House, saying it was part of his administration's response to climate change. He said in the budget he’ll send to Congress next week, he’s proposing “fundamentally reforming the way federal governments fund fire suppression and prevention to make it more stable and secure.”

The president isn’t talking about your run of the mill wildfires. The funding plan would be earmarked for the largest and most expensive fires – the 1% of wildfires that consume 30% of the budget.

RELATED: KPCC's Fire Tracker tool 

It costs the federal government about $1.4 billion a year to suppress wildfires – more than Congress has budgeted. To make up the difference, the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service have been moving money around – taking money budgeted for forest management and preparing communities in the wildland/urban interface for future wildfires.

Instead of shifting money away from necessary programs within the Forest Service, the president would tap into a pool of money already set aside for extraordinary disasters. These are defined as fires burning near urban areas or an “abnormally” large number of fires in a season.

By contrast, California has budgeted $152 million for this fiscal year, $186 million for next year. If fire suppression costs exceed what has been budgeted, California can dip into a reserve fund known as the Special Fund for Economic Uncertainties. It did so last year and is expected to do so again this year.

Janet Upton, deputy director of CalFire, says the California's fire fighting effort is split among local, state, and federal agencies. She says when the federal funding portion isn't stable, that puts a strain on the other two partners. 

The president's proposal would affect all of the West, but Upton says it's particularly important to California. "Certainly, other Western states have a similar climate," she says, with "similar tendencies for wildfire, but they don't have that added layer of 38 million people."

The federal cash is still just a proposal. The president says it's based on existing legislation and has bipartisan support. But the measure could get push-back from states counting on that catastrophic relief for their own disasters.

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