The share of the US Forest Service budget devoted to fire management rose from 13 per cent in 1991 to more than 40 per cent in 2012. The total for all federal agencies last year – Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Fish and Wildlife Service – topped US$1.7 billion.
In 1985, wildfire suppression cost the USFS about US$240 million.
During the last three decades, fire season lengths have increased by 60 to 80 days and annual acreages burned have more than doubled to 7 million-plus acres (2.8 million hectares) annually. In addition, growing housing development in forests has put more people and houses in harms’ way, also making firefighting efforts more expensive.
Earlier this year, President Obama asked for US$615 million in supplemental funding for firefighting in 2014.
On federal forest land in Northern California a series of fires has scorched nearly 275,000 acres (111,288 hectares) combined.
The King Fire northeast of Sacramento, CA, in heavy timber and steep terrain, grew in mid-September to 80,994 acres (32,777 hectares). Some structures were destroyed, and 2,819 people had been evacuated. The fire was caused by a suspected arsonist and some 5,000 fire personnel were needed to gain control of that blaze.
Meanwhile, just south of the Oregon border, the Happy Camp Complex of fires was sparked by a lightning strike in August and grew to 130,139 acres (52,665 hectares) this month.
The Boles Fire in Weed, CA, fire burned just 479 acres (194 hectares) at the edge the small town near Mt. Shasta, but forced some 1,500 people to evacuate, and destroyed 143 homes, two churches, and the town library. It also caused major damage to a forest products mill, the main source of jobs in the town.
Fire officials have said drought conditions have worsened fire severity by significantly drying out vegetation, creating fast-moving flames.
Elsewhere, Oregon and Washington State experienced 3,270 fires that affected 1,284,013 acres (519,621 hectares) on federal, state, and private lands, according to the latest figures from the National Interagency Fire Center.
Although that’s fewer than the 10-year average of 3,877 fires in both states, the acres burned was nearly triple the 10-year average of 452,039 acres (182,933 hectares).
The biggest fires were Washington’s 256,108-acre Carlton Complex (103,643 hectares), that state’s largest-ever blaze, and the 395,747-acre Buzzard Complex (160,153 hectares) in southeastern Oregon.
The total cost to fight these fires this year is US$446 million, compared to $235 million last year, according to the coordination center, which assigns firefighters and resources to wildfires in Oregon and Washington.
Extended drought conditions in Oregon combined with lightning and wind to make the Pacific Northwest and California ripe for fires this year, said Mike Ferris, a spokesperson for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, ID, last week.
The USFS and the Department of the Interior are projected to spend more than US$470 million more than is available to fight wildfires this season, the USFS announced Tuesday.
According to a congressionally mandated report, the Forest Service and Interior may need to spend US$1.8 billion fighting fires this year, while the agencies have only US$1.4 billion available.
“The forecast … demonstrates the difficult budget position the Forest Service and Interior face in our efforts to fight catastrophic wildfire,” said Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for natural resources and environment.
The new forecast is the highest in several years. Drought conditions in the West, especially in California, combine with other factors to portend a dangerous fire season. Last year, 34 wildland firefighters died in the line of duty as fire burned 4.1 million acres (1.7 million hectares) and destroyed more than 1,000 homes across the country.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently announced that the Forest Service had run out of money for fire suppression at the end of August.
If the fire season is as costly as the study predicts, the Forest Service and the Interior Department will be forced to take funding out of other critical programs that increase the long-term resistance of national forests and public lands to wildfire. Both departments have had to divert funds from other programs to fund firefighting efforts for seven of the last 12 years.
“Fire borrowing,” as it’s known, takes funding away from forest management activities such as mechanical thinning and controlled burns that reduce both the incidence and severity of wildfires. For the rest of the year, other Forest Service projects will have to be halted or severely curtailed, as money appropriated to fund them is diverted to pay for fire suppression. This is no way to run an agency.
In addition to fire borrowing, over the last two decades, the Forest Service also has had to shift more and more money to firefighting, thereby reducing foresters and other staff by more than 30 per cent and more than doubling the number of firefighters.
Congress is supposed to return that borrowed money but, even when it does, work has already been disrupted and, ironically, funding is often yanked from projects that could help reduce the risk and intensity of wildfires. During 2012 and 2013, roughly US$1 billion was pilfered, leaving the agency too broke to thin trees near homes in Arizona’s Verde watershed, for example, or reduce fire hazards in California’s Tahoe National Forest.
The proposed Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would treat the biggest wildfires like any other natural disaster, allowing land management agencies to tap a US$2.7 billion federal disaster relief account, like FEMA does after hurricanes and earthquakes. That would let agencies fully fund existing programs, including those that reduce fire danger. This is the same approach proposed in President Obama’s 2015 budget.
The Act has bipartisan support across Congress. Sponsored by Senators Ron Wyden, D-OR, and Mike Crapo, R-ID, and by Representatives Mike Simpson, R-ID, and Kurt Schrader, D-OR, it’s garnered 62 Republican co-sponsors and 87 Democratic co-sponsors but has been stalled in the House since December 2012.
Two powerful House members, Budget Chair Paul Ryan, R-WI, and Natural Resources Chair Doc Hastings, R-WA, are actively opposing the proposed Act.
More than 200 organizations have endorsed it, ranging from the American Farm Bureau Federation to the American Loggers Council and The Nature Conservancy and the National Rifle Association. Five Western governors sent letters supporting the bill and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has urged its passage.