The Obama administration is asking Congress for more money to fight summer wildfires, especially in the dry West, but perhaps it could start by getting its own agencies off firefighters’ backs. We’re speaking of the Defense Department’s recent and gratuitous fit of environmental consciousness, which has disrupted disaster efforts in peak wildfire season.
A bipartisan group of 25 senators led by Arizona’s John McCain last Thursday sent Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel a letter demanding an explanation for the Pentagon’s June decision to stop programs that supply federal equipment to states for fighting wildfires. DOD suspended the programs on grounds the equipment didn’t meet the latest federal emissions standards. As if real fires aren’t major air-polluting events.
At issue are two programs — the Federal Excess Personal Property Program and the Firefighter Property Program — that every year loan local firefighting units more than $150 million of equipment that the federal government no longer needs. The programs supply tens of thousands of items — trucks, pumps, generators, engine parts — and have become a lifeline for smaller, all-volunteer fire departments that can’t afford $500,000 for a new tanker. This is more than charity given that the vast majority of the wildfires these local units battle occur on land owned by the federal government.
But in mid-June DOD suspended the transfer of trucks and generators, many of which were made for military use with diesel engines that don’t meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s latest emissions standards. According to the Defense Logistics Agency, which handles the transfers, its employees were wading through paperwork in May and suddenly feared that they weren’t abiding by a decades-old agreement with the EPA to submit to Clean Air Act standards. DOD’s response to its self-generated confusion was to suspend the program, leaving thousands of local fire-fighting teams without help.
An enormous state outcry caused EPA and DOD to announce last week that they are restarting the programs. The wizards at DOD have concluded that EPA grants a “national security” exemption to its emissions rules for transferred military equipment. Wonderful.
Yet proving that no government mistake goes without punishing others, the agencies have nonetheless suggested that this program restart may now come with new requirements — including that local firefighters track and ultimately return every piece of equipment so the feds can destroy them. We can’t have rogue, un-emissions-friendly generators roaming the countryside.
That inspired Senator McCain’s letter to Hagel asking to know how this mess happened, as well as the details on any new requirements. Local fire units have enough trouble without worrying that the feds will suddenly seize their fire truck keys. This administration can’t even give things away without making a mess of it.