California's wildfires have set historic records for destruction two years in a row. One of those, the Thomas fire, burned into 2018 and even this week, is close, but not fully contained. Last January, Lisa Fletcher visited the fire zone to discover that part of the problem is how the disaster dollars are spent. A year ago, there was a call to action from Congress. So far, it goes unanswered.
California's 2017 wildfire season was the worst on record. More than 636 thousand acres burned, and nearly four and a half billion dollars spent. That's according to Congressman Jeff Denham.
Rep. Jeff Denham: This is certainly the biggest fire year in California history.
He is a Republican from California, representing part of San Joaquin, where residents have not only seen their share of wildfires this year but also the heavy smoke they’ve caused.
Rep: Denham: I don't think anybody could have predicted this fire year being as bad as it is but again we can still do a better job of prevention.
For California firefighters it seems the flames they’re up against keep getting higher. Some thought 20-16 was bad. That’s when a quarter million acres went up in flames costing the state nearly two billion dollars. And that’s when we went to California to see what kind of support the state was getting to fight and prevent future wildfires.
Robert Bonnie: We need Congress to act and we need them to act now.
We spoke with Robert Bonnie, who was then head of the US Forest Service. It’s the agency in charge of fighting fires, but also preventing them. He says year after year, wildfires are burning through more budget dollars.
Bonnie: It's close to 3 billion dollars last year, out of an agency budget that's about 5 billion.
Bonnie has spent years urging Congress to treat fires like natural disasters. That would shift the cost from the forest service to emergency funds used for hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods. Irma, Harvey, the Thomas fire. 2017 may go down in history as the year natural disasters became household names. Scheduled for the 20-18 Congress is a vote on the disaster-aid bill which includes spending for wildfires. Lawmakers delayed a vote on the 81-billion dollar bill to avoid a government shutdown. We sat down with Denham and showed him our story from last year.
Lisa Fletcher: What were you thinking about as you as watched?
Rep. Denham: There's a lot of concern there. We've got to do a better job.
Lisa Fletcher: You said you've seen bills in motion but has anything changed since last year?
Rep. Denham: Part of our challenge in California, our fires are always at the end of the year. And so the FEMA money starts in January and by the end of the year depending on hurricanes or earthquakes or other natural disasters we end up in November December having these later emergencies and so FEMA money we end up doing simple no. That's something we've got to fix.
In fact, according to FEMA, every dollar put towards prevention equals four dollars in disaster cost savings for taxpayers.
Rep. Denham: But when there's a forest fire in Yosemite or like we saw down in Big Sur when it's on federal lands that continues to be a big problem and so we want to make sure that some of that fire, natural disaster money comes from FEMA rather than just taking all the prevention money out of the federal funds and then not being able to manage our force correctly.
With extreme fires consuming so much of the forest service's budget, programs designed to prevent fires are in jeopardy, as one firefighter told us last year.
Lisa Fletcher: Is this a disaster?
Mark Gerwe: Absolutely it's a disaster and for Congress and Washington not to recognize that and giving us what we need to do our job. I think they need to take a hard look at that and understand that this is what's going on.
Denham is supporting a bill to move more FEMA dollars towards a new tactical approach.
Rep. Denham: Making sure that building structures are up to a standard whether that's for hurricanes in a hurricane-prone area or for fire damage or earthquakes in California. So there's building standards are a big part of it but we're getting bipartisan support.
Lisa Fletcher: I mean it sounds like there's a little movement there's a little headway but it's it's still a work in progress.
Rep. Denham: Congress never moves quick enough. But having our bill in the Senate now I think looks very positive.
Just this week President Trump declared a major disaster in California, opening up federal funding for emergency work, hazard reduction, and fire recovery. That helps in the short term but does nothing to address consistent, stabilized funding for the Forest Service to both prevent and protect Americans from fire. That change still needs to come from Congress.