Wildfires are getting worse. Why is Congress so unprepared?

August 23, 2013

Plenty of experts think Western wildfires will keep getting costlier in the years ahead, thanks to both global warming and a sharp uptick in the number of Americans who live in fire-prone areas. Yet the federal government seems unprepared for this fact.

"For the second straight year," my colleague Darryl Fears reports, "the federal government has run through its budget for fighting wildfires amid a grueling, deadly season and will be forced to move $600 million from other funds, some of which help prevent fires." Note that this has happened even though the 2013 wildfire season has actually been one of the least severe this decade (so far).

There are a lot of budgetary ins and outs to this story — and you should really read Fears's full piece — but you can see the basic dynamic in this chart below. Wildfires have become steadily more widespread since 1985, which drives up the cost of suppression:

Yet Congress hasn't adapted to these trends. "Over seven years starting in 2002, the Agriculture Department, which runs the Forest Service, was forced to transfer $2.2 billion from other accounts to fight wildfires when the budget came up short, according to records provided by the Forest Service," Fears reports. "Congress, which sets the budget, at times reimbursed only a fraction of those funds."

Then, in 2011, Congress pulled $200 million from a firefighting fund after a relatively mild fire season. That was followed by the second-worst wildfire year on record. This year, meanwhile, the sequester cut an additional $115 million from wildfire funds. Those cuts have added up.

The Times-News, Ashley Smith/Associated Press - In this Aug. 14, 2013, photo, members of the Idaho City Hotshots work on burnout operations around Pine, Idaho, where the Elk Complex lightning-caused fire continued to burn. The Times-News, Ashley Smith/Associated Press - In this Aug. 14, 2013, photo, members of the Idaho City Hotshots work on burnout operations around Pine, Idaho, where the Elk Complex lightning-caused fire continued to burn.

There are a couple of big reasons why wildfires, particularly out West, have been getting bigger and more destructive over time. Climate change has heated up and dried out the region, making forests more flammable. Certain forest management and fire-suppression techniques over the past century have also made forests more susceptible to truly gigantic blazes.

But there's another key factor driving up costs: The number of people living in fire-prone areas has grown dramatically. Some 250,000 new residents have settled in Colorado’s “red zone” over the past two decades, for instance. Not only can that increase the odds of a fire starting in the first place, but more crucially, it increases the cost of suppression, as firefighters focus on protecting nearby homes.

There's also reason to think that wildfires could keep getting bigger. A study in 2012 by a team of researchers at the University of California at Berkeley looked at 16 different climate models and concluded that wildfire activity was likely to become much more widespread in regions such as the Western United States if humans keep pumping carbon into the atmosphere and the world heats up.

So far, however, the federal government has been slow to react. The U.S. Forest Service, for its part, has proposed new forestry practices to reduce the risk of fires, including a greater use of smaller prescribed fires and "mechanical thinning” to clear out the tangled overgrowth in many forests. Yet these measures are expensive — the price tag to treat 4 million acres comes to about $1 billion — and the agency is already struggling with funding as is.

Other experts, like Ross Gorte of Headwaters Economics, argue that some government policies even encourage people to live in wildfire-prone zones. State and local governments are mostly in charge of deciding whether to develop areas on the "wildland-urban interface." Yet the federal government picks up the biggest piece of the tab for fire suppression and protection — now spending about $3 billion per year. There are mismatched incentives here.

In a recent paper (pdf) Gorte argued that Congress should explore ways to tamp down this moral hazard through policies like tightening fire standards and building codes for homes in these areas, or even limiting the mortgage-interest deduction for homes built in especially vulnerable regions.

Those might all be worth considering. But right now, simply coming up with funds for fighting fires seems to be hard enough.

Further reading:

--Why Western wildfires keep getting worse

--Why does the government encourage people to live in fire-prone zones?

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