WASHINGTON – The U.S. Forest Service spent a record $243 million last week battling forest fires around the country, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday.
The agency has spent all the money Congress provided for fighting wildfires in the 12-month budget period, forcing it to borrow money from forest restoration work designed to reduce the risk of fires. That's happened in six of the past 10 years, Vilsack said.
Vilsack said further transfers are likely and the agency expects to continue spending about $200 million per week on fire suppression during the coming weeks.
The administration is pushing Congress to change how the government pays for fighting wildfires. It wants to treat some fires as federal disasters. The new disaster account would cover the cost of fighting the most damaging fires, which would reduce the pressure on other parts of the Forest Service budget.
Republicans are working on proposals that would end the transfers, but they also want to make changes in federal law designed to speed up the pace of thinning projects on federal lands.
Vilsack said the Forest Service and its partner agencies have deployed record numbers of firefighters and aviation assets to deal with more than 70 large fires burning in five states.
"The current fire situation is an important reminder that every day, thousands of brave Americans step up to protect people and property," he said in a statement to The Associated Press. "We do everything in our power to ensure that every firefighter comes home safely, but our firefighting personnel have been particularly hard hit this year."