In a remote part of central Washington, a community mourns the loss of young firefighter. The area has suffered from record-breaking heat, devastating drought and widespread forest fires. As they take stock of the destruction some worry that a warming climate might mean massive wildfires will become the new normal. (Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Last year’s wildfire season set a record with more than 10 million acres burned. That’s more land than Maryland, the District and Delaware combined.

More than half the total was the result of mega-fires in Alaska, where dryness due to historically low mountain snowpack and a freak lightning storm created perfect conditions for a huge blaze. The nation’s overall toll was about 4 million acres more than the yearly average, scorching a record set in 2006.

The record was anticipated by the U.S. Forest Service, the Agriculture Department division charged with fighting fires, because of climate change and a prolonged drought in western states that parched wilderness areas. Alaska’s wildfire season was its second worst ever, and both Washington and Oregon suffered historic burns. Those two states were on pace to break records as early as September, with nearly 2 million acres charred between them.

Agriculture Department officials have warned that fire seasons are starting earlier and lasting longer than years ago, and they’ve sought to convince Congress to change the way it funds firefighting because its budget appropriation falls short nearly every year. So far, Congress has refused.

Lawmakers base their funding on the average cost to fight fires over the previous decade. But that doesn’t account for wildfire seasons that now run from April through December instead of June to September. It once was rare to see 5 million cumulative acres burn in a year, fire officials say, but recent seasons have recorded twice that. At least two controlled wildfires are currently burning in California and Texas, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

To cover the budget shortfalls for firefighting, the Agriculture Department robs the funding of other parts of the Forest Service, some of them devoted to fire prevention. In December, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told lawmakers that practice would stop and issued an angry ultimatum: If you want the Forest Service to keep putting out huge wildfires, then pay for it up front.

Vilsack was upset because Congress set aside $1.6 billion to pay for wildfire suppression in 2016, ignoring that the Forest Service spent $100 million more than that to fight blazes even before 2015 ended. The service paid $243 million in a single week in August to suppress fires — another record. 

By 2025, the Forest Service estimates, fighting fires will eat 67 percent of its budget, a seismic increase from 16 percent in 1995.

“This directly impacts the Forest Service’s ability to fund other critical work such as restoration that can reduce wildfire threat, drinking water area protection, and recreation investments, not just in the West, but across the country,” Vilsack wrote last month.


Firefighters tackle a blaze in Washington. (AP)

In last year’s strange season, California, staggered by a four-year drought, experienced about a thousand more fires than usual, but they at least were smaller burns that allowed the state to escape the monster infernos officials predicted. The Pacific Northwest, which was suffering its own historic drought, was harder hit.

Washington was so dry that Olympic National Park, a rain forest and arguably one of the wettest areas in North America, caught fire and burned for weeks. A single fire, the Canyon Creek Complex, burned 110,000 acres in Oregon. Ninety-eight fires met the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center “large fires” criteria.