-Martin Kidston reporting for the Missoula Current
As the fire season heats up across the West, Sen. Jon Tester and other members of Congress will be watching the Forest Service to see how it allocates funding and resources under a new spending package passed last year.
That includes funds designated for fire suppression and ensuring the agency properly leases the assets it needs to complete the job.
“We’ve allocated some dollars set aside specifically for firefighting that doesn’t rob the Forest Service budget. That’s the biggest things we’ve done,” Tester said.
“We’re going to make sure the Forest Service has done the proper leasing to make sure we’ve got air assets and ground assets available throughout the country when fire springs up. We’re going to be monitoring that as we move forward, and we’ll be holding people accountable along the way.”
Last year, Congress gave the Forest Service and Interior Department badly needed stability by allocating funds specifically for the task of fighting wildfires.
In the past, if the cost of fighting fires exceeded the agency’s budget, other Forest Service projects, including maintenance, were abandoned as money was siphoned off to make up the difference.
But under the so-called fire funding fix, starting in 2020, Congress can allocate up to $2.25 billion for fire suppression, increasing to almost $3 billion over eight years.
How the agency leases assets needed for fire suppression is also on Tester’s radar.
“There was that fire south of Missoula a few years ago, and they had tankers sitting right there, but the Forest Service had no contracts with the tankers sitting at the Missoula airport,” Tester said. “That could have been a catastrophic and the assets were right there.”
Tester added, “We’re going to be working here to make sure our firefighters have the tools and resources they need to effectively do their job.”