The Obama administration wants to fundamentally shift how it pays for firefighting in the United States — something Western lawmakers and governors have been agitating to change for years.

The proposal, which doesn't increase overall spending and is part of President Barack Obama's budget this year, essentially allows for separate funds to fight fires so the federal government doesn't have to take money away from prevention.

Amid a number of the most destructive wildfire seasons ever recorded, the Obama administration has been cribbing cash to fight fires from the same pot used for suppression and prevention.

FILE -- President Barack Obama speaks to members of the National Governors Association in Washington, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014.
FILE -- President Barack Obama speaks to members of the National Governors Association in Washington, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. (Jacquelyn Martin, AP Photo)

In a classic robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul scenario, the departments of Agriculture and Interior had to transfer $463 million in 2012 and $636 million in 2013 to fight fires. Those dollars came from programs that removed brush, managed forests and grasslands, and focused on forest health.

"We can't keep putting our thumb in the dike," said Gov. John Hickenlooper, following a White House meeting on the issue. "At some point, we've got to make the kind of investments that begin to solve the problem."

Under the proposal unveiled Monday, the costs to fight severe wildfires — those that require emergency response or are near urban areas — would be funded through a new "wildfire suppression cap adjustment." This funding mechanism removes firefighting cash from regular discretionary budget caps, thus protecting prevention funds.

This budget cap adjustment would be used only to fund the most severe 1 percent of catastrophic fires, and Congress would need to fund costs for the other 99 percent of fires before the cap funds become available.

In an interview, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called the previous funding method "a vicious cycle."

"It would also allow us to do a better job to work on the 70,000 communities who are now ... surrounded by forest," he said. "They want the benefit of beautiful scenery. This would give us the resources to better prepare those communities."

Wildfire destruction has become a worsening problem. Six of the most destructive fire seasons in the past 50 years have been since 2000.

Hickenlooper said White House officials on Monday brought Western governors to the Situation Room to view drought, rain and water table conditions nationwide. White House officials said one-third of American families live within the wildland-urban interface.

"It was very sobering," Hickenlooper said.

In November, El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark told a Senate panel her community needed the federal government's help to clear dead, dangerous brush adjacent to urban neighborhoods.

On Capitol Hill, where the president's plan would need approval, bipartisan bills are pending in both the House and the Senate that support the new funding scheme. Both Democratic Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet support the Senate plan.

"This strategy will ensure we fight today's fires without undermining efforts to get ahead of tomorrow's blazes," Udall said in a statement.

Bennet, who held a hearing last fall on the issue, agreed. "Today's announcement addresses this issue by promoting a smarter, more sensible approach to dealing with wildfires that will save us money in the future," he said in a statement.

Allison Sherry: 202-662-8907, asherry@denverpost.com or twitter.com/allisonsherry