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USDA underscores fire assistance for Western farmers, ranchers

USDA underscores fire assistance for Western farmers, ranchers

USDA says recent wildfires highlight need for fire budget reform

As Western farmers and ranchers struggle with lost land, fencing, trees and livestock, USDA says they may be eligible for natural disaster assistance through the agency.

Related: White House to float more drought relief to Western states

The Farm Service Agency can assist farmers and ranchers with losses through its Livestock Indemnity Program, the Livestock Forage Disaster Program, the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish Program, or the Tree Assistance Program.

Wildfires are ongoing in Alaska, California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington state.

Pigs look for food while wandering a forest burned by the Valley Fire on September 14, 2015 in Middletown, California. The 95-square-mile fire has destroyed hundreds of homes and is only five percent contained. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

"Wildfires have caused devastating losses for many farmers and ranchers," said FSA Administrator Val Dolcini. "Over the past several years, wildfires have increased in severity, intensity and cost as the fire season has grown longer, and drought and increased temperatures contribute to dangerous conditions. Natural disasters such as wildfires are unavoidable, but USDA has strong safety-net programs to help producers get back on their feet."

In addition, to the species- or product-specific FSA programs, the FSA Emergency Conservation Program provides funding and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers to rehabilitate farmland damaged by natural disasters. It also provides for carrying out emergency water conservation measures in periods of severe drought.

Producers located in counties that received a primary or contiguous disaster designation are eligible for low-interest emergency loans to help them recover from production and physical losses.

Compensation is also available to producers who purchased coverage through the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, which protects non-insurable crops against natural disasters that result in lower yields, crop losses or prevented planting.

NRCS, RD assistance available
The Natural Resources Conservation Service can assist producers with damaged grazing land as well as farmers, ranchers and forestland owners who find themselves in emergency situations caused by natural disasters.

The NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program provides financial assistance to producers who agree to defer grazing on damaged land for two years.


In the event that presidentially declared natural disasters, such as wildfires, lead to imminent threats to life and property, NRCS can assist local government sponsors with the cost of implementing conservation practices to address natural resource concerns and hazards through the Emergency Watershed Protection Program.

Related: Wildfires Demanding More Federal Ag Department Dollars

"After natural disasters such as wildfires, it is critical that farmers, ranchers and forestland owners have financial and technical resources available to protect their natural resources and operations," said NRCS Chief Jason Weller. "Conservation practices protect the land and aid recovery, but can build the natural resource base and may help mitigate loss in future events."

Farmers and ranchers with coverage through the federal crop insurance program administered by the Risk Management Agency should contact their crop insurance agent to discuss losses due to fire or other natural causes of loss. Crop insurance is sold and delivered solely through private crop insurance agents. A list of crop insurance agents is available at all USDA Service Centers and online at the RMA Agent Locator.

When wildfires destroy or severely damage residential property, Rural Development can assist with providing priority hardship application processing for single family housing. Under a disaster designation, RD can issue a priority letter for next available multi-family housing units. RD also provides low-interest loans to community facilities, water environmental programs, businesses and cooperatives and to rural utilities.

Budget trouble
Today, fire seasons are 78 days longer than in the 1970s. Since 2000, at least 10 states have had their largest fires on record. This year, there have been more than 46,000 fires. Increasing development near forest boundaries also drives up costs, as more than 46 million homes and more than 70,000 communities are at risk from wildfire in the United States.

For the first time in its 110-year history, the Forest Service, part of USDA, is spending more than 50% of its budget to suppress the nation's wildfires, and the USDA on Monday asked Congress to transfer an additional $250 million to cover wildfire suppression costs for the remainder of the year.

Because of the budget issue, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, and the White House Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan on Tuesday sent a joint letter to Congress requesting they act to change the way the nation pays for wildfire costs.


The cost of the U.S. Forest Service's wildfire suppression reached a record $243 million in a one-week period during the height of suppression activity last month.

Related: Western Beef Producers Losing Cattle, Grazing Lands to Washington Wildfires

With a record 52% of the Forest Service's budget dedicated to fighting wildfire, compared to just 16% in 1995, the Forest Service's firefighting budget has been exhausted. This has forced USDA to transfer funds away from forest restoration projects that would help reduce the risk of future fires to cover costs of battling today's fires.

The agencies propose that DOI and the Forest Service would be able to access a discretionary disaster cap adjustment after the amount spent on fire suppression exceeds 70% of the 10-year average.

This is mirrored in the proposed bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act which is budget neutral.

This approach allows the agencies to invest additional resources in forest and rangeland restoration and management. In the case of the Forest Service, it would increase acres treated by 1 million acres annually and increase timber outputs by 300 million board feet annually.

In the Department of the Interior, it would increase the number of acres treated annually by 500,000 acres and help protect public lands such as the sage steppe ecosystem.

"We urgently need to address the runaway growth of fire suppression at the cost of other critical programs - instead of leaving our agencies and the States scrambling to plug budget gaps while they are literally putting out fires," Donovan said.

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