This story has been updated.
As 14 large fires rage across California, the U.S. Forest Service is sounding the alarm about the exploding cost of protecting people and property from a growing wildfire threat.
In a new report released Wednesday, the agency says that while it spent 16 percent of its total budget on preparing for and fighting fires in 1995, it will spend more than half its budget this year on the same task — and a projected 67 percent or more by 2025 under current funding arrangements.
By ten years from now, the agency’s expenditures for fighting wildfires as they flare up — dubbed fire suppression — are projected to increase from just under $1.1 billion in 2014 to nearly $1.8 billion. And that’s just one of a number of fire related costs; there is also an annual, fixed fire “preparedness” budget that exceeds $1 billion each year.
The Forest Service report says the agency’s very mission is “threatened” by this trend of increased fires, which is having a “debilitating impact” on other Forest Service responsibilities due to a phenomenon where funds for other priorities get shifted towards immediate wildfire emergencies.
“With a warming climate, fire seasons are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970,” the document reads. “The U.S. burns twice as many acres as three decades ago and Forest Service scientists believe the acreage burned may double again by mid-century.”
The fact that people are building more structures in harm’s way only compounds the problem, the agency adds.
“I think we’re at the tipping point, where over half of the Forest Service budget is used for fire,” said Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack, whose department includes the service. Vilsack said that to get a handle on the problem, extremely large or intense fires — which are only 1 to 2 percent of the total, but chew up 30 percent of firefighting costs — should be treated as natural disasters, much like hurricanes and floods are, and funded accordingly.
Vilsack’s favored approach for such funding involves a mechanism called a “budget cap adjustment,” which can allow for added spending on disasters despite caps on total spending under 2011 budget legislation.
“Unless you treat those massive fires as the emergencies that they are and fund them as such, you’re never going to get ahead of this,” Vilsack said. “You’re always going to be constantly behind, and getting further and further behind.”
In addition, Vilsack says, Congress needs to fund the Forest Service adequately — providing 70 percent of the 10 year average cost of fighting fires each year would do the trick, he says, if the large catastrophic fires are then treated as national disasters on top of that.
As of now, the Forest Service’s annual fire suppression budget is based on the ten year average of what it has spent in the past, explains Robert Bonnie, under secretary for natural resources and environment at the Agriculture Department. But that total is often too low because of the underlying trend towards more expensive years. In a given year, the Service typically has $50 to $100 million less allocated funding than it needs to fight fires, leading to the need to take funds from other programs, Bonnie said.
The Forest Service is not the only federal agency charged with fighting fires. The Interior Department also manages many wildland areas, and its agencies are charged with about a third of total federal wildland firefighting.
Overall, according to a 2013 study by Headwater Economics, federal wildfire expenditures have increased from under $1 billion per year on average before 1990 to more than $3 billion per year since 2002. And the new Forest Service report suggests they’re still rising.
The report comes amid a quickly worsening 2015 wildfire season. While the number of total national fires is actually below average for this time of year at 36,959, the acreage burned is well above average already, at close to six million acres. Nearly five million of those acres have burned in Alaska, which has had the most dramatic wildfire season of any state this year. But lately, activity has picked up alarmingly in the state of California as well, and indeed, recently claimed the life of South Dakota firefighter David Ruhl, who perished combating a northern California blaze.
Washington State, too, is having a dramatic wildfire season, with seven large fires currently burning.
“We can’t sit idle and expect the budget issues around fire to fix themselves while people’s houses burn. The Forest Service report reinforces the arguments in favor of a comprehensive solution to address fire spending and our firefighting strategies,” said Washington Democratic senator Maria Cantwell in a statement. Cantwell is preparing to introduce a major bill to address how the country handles wildfires, and has already released a white paper outlining the principles involved — one of which involves changes in wildfire funding.
One irony is that the more the Forest Service spends to fight fires, the less it can spend on other activities — which includes not only staffing and upkeep at the nation’s forests, but also forest restoration measures that can lessen wildfire dangers going forward. “In some cases, the agency is forced to divert money away from the forest restoration projects that prevent or lessen the impacts of future wildfire,” the new report reads.
“There’s a reason the U.S. Forest Service is not—and should not be—the ‘U.S. Fire Service,’ and that is because Americans need all of this important forest management work to be done for people, water and wildlife,” says Cecilia Clavet, senior policy advisor at The Nature Conservancy, who spoke after being briefed on the report.
These budget changes are also reflected in staffing, the new report says. Since 1999, as the percentage of the Forest Service budget dedicated to fires has escalated, non-fire staff have been cut by 39 percent, it says. And naturally, firefighting staffing has more than doubled, growing by from 5,700 in 1998 to more than 12,000 this year, an increase of 114 percent.
It’s impossible to discuss this trend outside of the context of climate change. Simply put, while fires always need something to ignite them — ranging from human carelessness to lightning strikes — the propensity for a forest or other vegetated area to burn is strongly dependent on climatic factors, and in particular, heat and dryness.
A recent scientific study in Nature Communications found that around the globe, the seasons of the year featuring favorable “fire weather” is lengthening. U.S. fire statistics also reflect a dramatic recent change. “The six worst fire seasons since 1960 have all occurred since 2000,” says the Forest Service report. “Moreover, since 2000, many western states have experienced the largest wildfires in their state’s history.”
The Forest Service and Agriculture Department leadership have become increasingly vocal about its budget problem in the past several years, but the new document represents the strongest statement yet, says Bonnie.
One piece of legislation, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, co-sponsored by Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson, would address the concerns of the Forest Service and the Agriculture Department. The legislation has been reintroduced this year.
“Wildfires are inevitable natural disasters, just like hurricanes and earthquakes. It simply makes no sense to hamstring the Forest Service like we have been and keep making it nearly impossible for them to plan and carry out their mission,” said Rep. Ken Calvert, a California Republican and co-sponsor of Simpson’s bill, in a statement. “How many more wildfires have to scorch our landscapes before Congress passes the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act and makes federal emergency funds available to battle wildfires?”
President Obama’s requested 2016 budget attempts a similar tack, noting that “it is clear that the cost of wildland fire suppression is subsuming the agency’s budget for proactive land management and jeopardizing its ability to implement its full mission.” The budget would allocate to the service 70 percent of the ten year average cost of fire suppression, and then fund anything above that — up to a total of $ 855 million — as disaster funding.
“This strategy provides increased certainty in addressing growing fire suppression needs,” the budget document notes.
Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that controls the Forest Service budget, is offering a somewhat different approach. A bill from the committee would fund the suppression budget at 100 percent of the ten year average – not 70 percent – and also provide the option for additional disaster funding, says Murkowski spokesman Robert Dillon.
“Proposals to fund less than the 10 year average would move hundreds of millions of dollars of firefighting funding off budget with no guarantee that additional resources would be freed up for preventative actions to reduce fire risk,” said Dillon by email.
However, Murkowski accepts the budget caps that Congress is currently working under – and which the Obama budget would exceed. Thus, what happens with the Forest Service’s funding in the future may be subsumed under a much larger budgetary conflict over sequestration.
“The reality is, every year there’s an acknowledgement that there’s a problem, and every year, for whatever reason, Congress finds it difficult to actually solve it,” says Vilsack.