The cost of America’s forest fires has more than quintupled in the past 20 years

Wildfires are scorching the earth and burning through the United States' bank account.

More than 1.5 million acres of American forest have been burned to the ground so far this year, and that isn't even all that much. Last year, nearly 4.5 million acres were scorched; the year before, almost 9.5 million.

Forest fires have destroyed some 143 million acres since 1985, or roughly 5 million acres a year, on average.

But we aren't paying for them in forestry alone. The U.S. government now shells out some $2 billion a year just to stop them, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The total price, which includes wildlife preservation and land rehabilitation, is likely $1 billion to $2 billion more than that, according to estimates by research firm Headwaters Economics. Costs have ballooned so much that government agencies like the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior have found themselves hundreds of millions of dollars short of allocated funding, and lawmakers have taken to using the term "fire borrowing."

The upside is that this year's mild summer has helped tame the number of fires raging out west. More than 25 fires are currently burning in seven U.S. states, according to Bloomberg, but the first half of 2014 has charred less than half the year-to-date average between 2003 and 2013.

The downside is that 2014's mercy is likely no more than a statistical outlier. The combination of warmer temperatures and dryer lands has been a national forest killer in the United States — especially out west, where more than a dozen fires are raging in Washington and Oregon alone. And climate change is only expected to further boost temperatures and induce droughts in years to come. More and more forest fires are likely to follow, according to a recent report by the National Climate Assessment. "Western forests in the United States will be increasingly affected by large and intense fires that occur more frequently," the report said.

 

Roberto A. Ferdman is a reporter for Wonkblog covering food, economics, immigration and other things. He was previously a staff writer at Quartz.
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