Wildfire and the Federal Budget

Under enormous pressure from a fire season that has already seen 31,900 fires burn nearly 3 million acres, the US Forest Service (USFS) recently announced that, for the second year in a row, it has exhausted its yearly firefighting budget months before projected. What’s shocking is that while historically huge, this year’s fire season has been mild when compared to previous seasons: 2006, the worst season on record, saw 96,300 fires burn 9.8 million acres. This has been part of a larger trend. Two decades ago, fire season ran from June to September, and a year in which five million acres burned was a rarity. Today, fire season runs from May to October, and more than five million acres have burned in eight of the last ten years.

As fires have grown larger and more frequent, the effort required to fight them has grown as well. The USFS shoulders most of this burden on the Federal side, taking the lead on Federal land and assisting state and local agencies on State land. Not surprisingly, the growing fire season has put increasing strain on the USFS’s budgets, with progressively dire results. In 1985, the USFS spent just over $161.5M (or $55.77 per acre burned) to fight fires; in 2006 (the worst year on record), it spent over $1.5B ($152 per acre burned).

Despite growing firefighting budgets, the result has still been a fire season that costs more than the USFS can cover for both of the last two years. In each case, the USFS made up the shortfall by pulling money from other programs — most notably from fire prevention programs. In other words, they are sacrificing their ability to prevent future fires in order to fight fires now. With a changing climate likely to make destructive wildfires all the more common, this strategy has entered the USFS in a race it cannot win, forcing it to spend larger and larger sums of money fighting a problem instead of investing in prevention.

This pattern of robbing from prevention to pay for fire suppression is unlikely to change in the current political climate. It also neatly demonstrates the crosscutting impact a changing climate may have, wreaking havoc not only in the environmental arena, but in the fiscal as well, driving costs for things like firefighting up in an ever-increasing spiral. Failure to address this looming issue could have serious repercussions for the USFS’s budget — and the public lands it is responsible for.

 

Image By John McColgan — Edited by Fir0002, via Wikimedia Commons

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