Western lawmakers are worried that the limited amount of time that Congress is working this year will push an issue burning up their states into next year.
After a 2015 fire season that cost taxpayers $4.2 billion, Congress began discussing long-term funding fixes for fighting wildfires but made little headway. Now, with the 2016 fire season starting, time is running out on making any changes this year.
Last year's deadly fire season burned up more than 9.4 million acres, which included California's Valley Fire, a blaze that burned for weeks, destroyed thousands of buildings and killed four people.
More than 200 fires burned at once in Alaska, where more than 4 million acres were charred, causing enough concern that the omnibus spending package passed in late 2015 included increased funding for stopping wildfires this year.
Christine Cozakos, a Forest Service spokeswoman, said about $1.6 billion has been budgeted for wildfire suppression and the agency estimates it will spend between $1 billion-$1.7 billion. The service has exceeded its budget on wildfire suppression in all but two years since 2002.
In those years, the Forest Service borrowed money from other accounts. If that happens this year, the agency would be in trouble, she said.
"We can no longer afford to transfer funds away from critical work," Cozakos said. "In order to stop an ever-increasing amount of the Forest Service's budget from being used to fight fires instead of doing the work to make our forests more resilient to fires, legislation is needed to fix the fire budget."
If the Forest Service is once again forced to "fire borrow," the term for taking money from other operations to fight wildfires, other operations would have to be cut. That would include proactive measures such as cutting down smaller plants that could fuel fires, restoring forest areas, recreation improvement projects on national forest lands and other forms of fire protection.
Those measures are much cheaper than fighting fires. The Forest Service budgeted $375 million for clearing some forests of underbrush this year and about $1 billion in a preparedness fund.
Kirin Kennedy, an official at the Sierra Club working on public lands protection, said the environmental group wants to see the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act passed but said it's likely going to be a fight for the next Congress.
The bipartisan bill would end the practice of the Forest Service taking money from other accounts to pay for fighting wildfires and would treat fires like other natural disasters. It would fund wildfire suppression at 70 percent of the 10-year average and allow the worst wildfires — about 1 percent of wildfires take up 30 percent of the firefighting budget — to be funded through disaster recovery programs.
The bill has been introduced in both chambers, but hasn't made it through committee.
"This is not politically the best time to [work on] forest fires because we know we're not going to be able to get reforms through this Congress," Kennedy said.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a co-sponsor, is also pessimistic about the legislation's challenges. He is from a state that is expecting a significant amount of wildfire activity this summer.
"Nothing's going to get done because we're not here enough," Tester said. "I mean, truthfully, this is the worst, as far as participation days. It's the fewest amount of days we've been here in 60 years and we've got some big issues facing us from ISIS to the debt to wildfires to healthcare, you name it. And we're not around."
Congress will be in session for about five more weeks before the summer break and will return for a five-week stretch in the fall before the November elections. After that, there will be four weeks of legislative work during the lame-duck session.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., pressed Congress last fall to work on wildfire legislation, but his efforts have failed to gain traction.
"One of the important things is to separate the two funds that are being sucked up, and unfortunately we haven't got that moving," he said.
Cozakos sought to reassure that the Forest Service would be able to fight wildfires this year. The agency has more than 10,000 firefighters, 900 engines and hundreds of planes at the ready. The agency worked to reduce fuel for forest fires on 2.5 million acres of the National Forest System, state and private lands by cutting down small trees and clearing forests of underbrush that could serve as tinder.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she thinks Congress could ride to the rescue if a short-term fix is needed.
"You can be sure that we will get more money if needed," she said. "We're not going to let fires roar out of control."