Hot, dry weather and prolonged drought in some parts of the West have federal officials expecting to spend nearly $500 million more than they're budgeted for fighting wildfires this summer.
According to a Congressionally-mandated report issued Thursday, the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior are projected to spend over $470 million more than is available to fight wildfires this season. According to the report, the Forest Service and Interior may need to spend $1.8 billion fighting fires this year, while the agencies have only $1.4 billion available for firefighting.
"The forecast released today demonstrates the difficult budget position the Forest Service and Interior face in our efforts to fight catastrophic wildfire," said Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Robert Bonnie in a release. "While our agencies will spend the necessary resources to protect people, homes and our forests, the high levels of wildfire this report predicts would force us to borrow funds from forest restoration, recreation, and other areas. The President's budget proposal, and similar bipartisan legislation before Congress, would solve this problem and allow the Forest Service to do more to restore our forests to make them more resistant to fire."
"With climate change contributing to longer and more intense wildfire seasons, the dangers and costs of fighting those fires increase substantially," said DOI Assistant Secretary of Policy, Management and Budget Rhea Suh. "The President's budget proposal would provide a commonsense framework that gives the flexibility to accommodate peak fire seasons - but not at the cost of other Interior or Forest Service missions, or by adding to the deficit."
With the passage of the FLAME Act in 2009, both the Forest Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior are required to produce forecasts of annual suppression expenditures three times during each fiscal year (in March, May, and July). 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, the two agencies said. Last year, 34 wildland firefighters died in the line of duty as fire burned 4.1 million acres and destroyed more than 1,000 homes across the country.
"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," a joint press release said. "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. In addition to fire borrowing, over the last two decades, the Forest Service has also had to shift more and more money to firefighting, thereby reducing foresters and other staff by over 30 percent and more than doubling the number of firefighters.
In its 2015 budget proposal, the Obama Administration proposed a special disaster relief cap adjustment for use when costs of fighting fires exceed Forest Service and Department of the Interior budgets. The proposal tracks closely with legislation authored by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho, and Representatives Mike Simpson of Idaho and Kurt Schrader of Oregon.
Over the last three decades, fire season lengths have increased by 60-80 days and annual acreages burned have more than doubled to over 7 million acres annually. In addition, growing housing development in forests has put more people and houses in harms' way, also making firefighting efforts more expensive.