Fire season stretches state budgets

August 23, 2013

An unusually active fire season fueled by parched forests across the western United States has those states shelling out tens of millions of dollars to protect tens of millions of acres of state and federal land, according to fire officials. And while the states aren’t facing budget pinches as tight as the constraints the U.S. Forest Service has to deal with, the bills are mounting.


Fire locations are based on data provided by the National Interagency Coordination Center and are subject to change.

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the U.S. Forest Service has already spent $967 million fighting forest fires this year and was down to its last $50 million, as dozens of fires rage across the West two months before the end of fire season. With the nation on its highest level of wildfire preparedness, the remaining money is expected to last only a few days.

The federal government owns more than 581 million acres of land in Western states, according to a Congressional Research Service report, making them responsible for many of the fires that break out every year. But responsibility for fighting fires goes beyond the feds. Typically, the Forest Service works with state and local officials to divide responsibility for protecting public lands among several different agencies at multiple levels of government.

Through Wednesday, the state of Idaho had spent almost $17 million in taxpayer dollars protecting turf that state officials are responsible for, mostly in North Central Idaho and the Panhandle. Oregon has spent more than $80 million battling raging fires, while California has spent $46 million in the seven weeks since its fiscal year started on July 1, state officials said.

As of Thursday afternoon, there were 55 major fires burning throughout 10 Western states, according to the Forest Service. Forestry officials said that this year has been one of the more active in recent memory; JoAnn Kittrell, a spokeswoman for the Nevada Division of Forestry, said smoke from the Rim fire in California was wafting over Carson City, across the border.

In anticipation of the annual fire season, which runs from early May through late October, state legislatures allocate tens of millions of dollars in advance. The California legislature appropriated a $172 million emergency fund to fight the fires this year, based on estimates that took into account spending over the past five years and future projections. California spent $261 million fighting fires during the previous fiscal year, which ended on June 30 and included the early months of the 2013 fire season.

Nevada, where 87 percent of the state’s total area is owned by the federal government, allocated just $2.5 million to fight fires this year.

Other states, such as Idaho, deal with fire costs retroactively. The Idaho legislature grands the state Department of Lands deficiency warrant authority, which means it can spend money now and ask the legislature to approve that spending when the session convenes in January, said Emily Callahan, a department spokeswoman. Between the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, the federal government owns about two-thirds of Idaho’s forests.

Oregon has several layers of fire-prevention and -suppression funding. The state has a $20 million fund, paid for in part by private owners of forest land and in part by state taxpayers, that acts as a sort of insurance deductible. After it spends that $20 million, Oregon will rely on a $25 million insurance policy it owns through Lloyd’s of London, said Dan Postrel, a spokesman with the state Department of Forestry. About 95 percent of the state’s fire-suppression funding goes to fight the 1,000 or so small fires that never grow beyond 10 acres. Only when fires get bigger do federal agencies step in.

“The forests are kind of in a state where, if there’s a spark, if there’s lightning, which is how a lot of these things start, the fires are very likely to grow large quickly if we don’t aggressively attack them at the get-go,” Postrel said. “We have not seen a season like this in more than a decade here in Oregon. Part of that is a function of the fact that we’ve had some pretty moderate seasons in the past.”

Another part, Postrel said, is the drought that has plagued the West all year, drying out forests and making them especially susceptible to fires.

State budgets are supplemented by FEMA grants and reimbursements. The disaster management agency can give Fire Management Assistance Grants, or FMAGs, which means the federal government absorbs 75 percent of the costs of fighting fires, or the president can sign emergency declarations, which allows states and localities to apply for loans. Idaho, for example, expects to recoup $6.9 million of its fire-fighting costs from the federal government; and Nevada expects to be reimbursed for almost all the money it has spent battling fires, because those blazes erupted on federal land.

So far this year, FEMA has issued 27 FMAG grants, a White House spokesman said. Money from those grants can pay for field camps; equipment use, repair or replacement; tools, materials and supplies; or mobilization of fire-fighting teams.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration almost halved funding for a program to remove fuel that could feed the fires, cutting it from $201 million to $116 million, because of the federal budget sequester. The fires raging across the West threaten valuable land in states that still rely on timber and associated industries; Postrel, the Oregon Department of Forestry spokesman, said that the 16 million acres of forested land in his state is a $60 billion asset.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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