WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Monday proposed changing the way the federal government pays for fighting the nation's biggest wildfires, a move aimed at preserving funds meant to prevent fires beforehand.
In the administration's 2015 budget request to Congress, which the White House plans to release next week, Obama will recommend allowing the U.S. Forest Service and the Interior Department to use a Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster fund to finance efforts to put out the biggest 1 percent of wildfires.
Congress would have to find the money to fight the remaining 99 percent of the fires, under the plan Obama previewed for Western-state governors. They were in the nation's capital for the winter meeting of the National Governors Association.
Until now, Congress has appropriated money for all fires, large and small, but the funding has often fallen short as wildfires have become bigger, deadlier and costlier to battle.
Under Obama's proposal -- which Congress would have to endorse -- wildfires would be added to the list of natural disasters eligible for funding from FEMA's Disaster Relief Fund. Created in 2011, the $12 billion account finances relief work after disasters like hurricanes and major floods. About half the fund's money is used up every year.
The White House won't ask Congress to increase funding for the FEMA account but wants lawmakers to allow the use of existing money to pay for putting out wildfires on top of other disasters.
The White House said 1 percent of the blazes soak up 30 percent of the federal government's wildfire budget.
Obama's plan would remove the financial responsibility for these mega blazes from the Forest Service and the Interior Department.
That would save the agencies from having to transfer money year after year from other programs to pay the suppression costs exceeding the amounts Congress gives them -- a practice known as "fire borrowing." The agencies transferred a total of $636 million last year. The biggest instance of fire borrowing came in fiscal 2008, when the agencies transferred $1.06 billion.
Many congressional Democrats and Republicans say such borrowing siphons money away from the government's crucial fire-prevention work such as thinning forests and clearing underbrush before the onset of the fire season.
The administration's approach is based on legislation filed by Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Reps. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., and Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.
Obama's plan would free up $412 million a year for fire-prevention work, according to a congressional estimate. That's still less than what Congress recommended in 2003 -- $760 million a year -- but supporters say the White House's approach is a good start.
Colorado's Democratic senators praised president's approach.
"Federal firefighting agencies have been forced to raid forestry programs that could help prevent future fires. This destructive cycle - robbing Peter to pay Paul - leaves Coloradans exposed to wildfires and only invites future catastrophic mega-fires like the Waldo Canyon Fire, the High Park Fire and the West Fork Complex Fire," said Sen. Mark Udall, a co-sponsor of the Wyden-Crapo bill.
Sen. Michael Bennet said fire borrowing "ends up costing us more in the long run."
"It's a classic case of penny-wise and pound foolish. Today's announcement addresses this issue by promoting a smarter, more sensible approach to dealing with wildfires that will save us money in the future," he said in a statement.
The chairman and vice chairman of the Western Governors' Association -- Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican -- welcomed the prospect of Uncle Sam doing more front-end work to prevent wildfires.
Fire borrowing has hurt the West for years, the governors said in a letter to Congress and administration officials.
"The result . . . has been a significant increase in the average acreage burned, higher fire suppression costs, increased impacts on public health, catastrophic damage to the environment and more communities threatened by wildfires every year," they wrote.
Key questions remain unanswered about Obama's proposal. For instance, what precisely is a catastrophic fire; who will decide if a fire is catastrophic or a run-of-the-mill blaze; and when will that determination be made -- in the early stages of the fire or after the fact?
Congress will consult with the administration and work out such details when it considers the White House's spending request, said Alan Rowsome, a budget expert at The Wilderness Society, a conservation group that supports the Obama approach.
The bigger question is whether congressional Republicans will back the plan or oppose it on grounds that it came from a Democratic president, Rowsome said.
Though the original, bipartisan idea came from Capitol Hill, some Republicans would oppose it because it has won Obama's "stamp of approval," he said.
"There will be some members who don't want to see it move like it is purely for that reason," Rowsome said. "There will be people who stop at nothing to see that he doesn't get a win."