Watch CBS News

Federal Lawmakers Battling Over Bill Changing How States Pay Firefighting Costs

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) - Just this year alone, California firefighters have had to fight more than 4,000 fires. The state has seen at least 85,000 acres scorched by those fires.

In the last five years, California firefighters have had to be prepared to fight an average of 3,500 fires a year. And as the state struggles to keep up with this year's intense wildfire season, federal lawmakers are battling over a bill to change the way we pay for fighting those fires.

The money needed to fight fires is now hanging in the balance. So, here's a question: Are we more in danger of wildfires because of this budget gridlock?

"We are looking at unprecedented conditions throughout California," said Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott.

It's a message we've heard time and again this summer -- much of our state land is basically a tinderbox prime for fire.

"We're seeing fires that are more intense, fires that are more dangerous and more deadly," said Rep. John Garamendi.

Right now, when the federal government spends all of its firefighting budget, the extra money needed to fight new fires, comes out of pot meant for fire prevention -- the money used to clear out dry brush, which often is the fuels fires.

Congressman Garamendi is pushing lawmakers to support a bill that would rearrange emergency firefighting budget and create a reserve.

"The goal of all of this is to end that cycle, to do it the exact same way we do it with all other emergencies: set aside your reserve. When you need it, you tap the reserve, you don't tap the operational budgets," said Garamendi.

In California, firefighting works differently. The state does have reserve funds set aside for firefighting budget overruns. But Pimlott says fires have no boundaries, and if the feds take money meant to prevent fires, it affects the state and local fire departments too.

"It means that more resources go to a fire like the Rim Fire in Yosemite last year. And that means less resources are available in other areas of the state to attack the new fires that are starting," said Pimlott.

So while Washington wrangles over budget lines, are we more in danger? Firefighters say maybe. No one will stop fighting the fires, but as we enter the most dangerous part of the season, the U.S. Department of Forestry is in reaction mode. They aren't preventing fires, just fighting them.

This firefighting funding bill is bipartisan, but is hung up in committee in Washington. Garamendi is one of many lawmakers trying to get support for the bill to pass committee and head straight for a vote.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.