As a frightening story in Monday's Washington Post shows, the American West is burning up. And the sad fact about wildfires is the more the West burns, the less money the federal government has to pay for it.
In fact, the federal government hasn't had enough money to pay for fighting wildfires in at least a decade. And its patchwork method for paying for the fight could actually be causing more fires to happen.
Allow us to explain.
Wildfires have become much more common in recent years thanks to climate change, drought, more people living near forests and the fact that wildfires beget wildfires. But our system for how to pay for them hasn't changed in almost a century.
The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are the top two agencies charged with fighting wildfires, mostly because a majority of U.S. fires happen on their land.
Congress hands them a pot of money every year specifically to fight fires. But that money quickly runs out. The Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture, which house the BLM and Forest Service, project 2015 wildfire fighting costs to be anywhere from $810 million to $1.62 billion. It currently has $1 billion to pay for the fires.
If past numbers are any indication, expect the costs of this year's fire season to be on the high end; in 2014, the federal government ran about $500 million over its wildfire fighting budget, according to the National Interagency Wildfire Center. Each year's wildfire season now costs about 52 percent of the Forest Service's budget, up from 16 percent in 1995, according the Department of the Interior.
To get through the wildfire season, the agencies raid other pots of money in their departments. The first pot to get dipped into is usually wildfire prevention.
That means when fire season ends and it comes time to prevent the next season's wildfires -- things like clearing brush and trimming especially burnable parts of forests -- the government doesn't always have the cash to do it.
"So less forest management gets done because the budgets are essentially raided," said Tim Mahoney, an independent consultant who used to head Pew Charitable Trust's American Wilderness program but now speaks for himself. "It's a terrible way to run an agency."
It is, as they say, a vicious cycle.
For the past four Congresses, Western lawmakers like Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have proposed categorizing wildfires alongside hurricanes and floods as natural disasters. Money would go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to battle fires, leaving the Forest Service and BLM to focus more on fire prevention. President Obama has supported this approach.
The problem? Actually paying for wildfires will cost more money. Budget hawks in Congress aren't a fan of that, demanding an offset in return. And the uniquely Western problem of wildfires has traditionally ranked pretty low on the much-broader Congress's list of financial problems to solve.
Even if we were to reform the way wildfires are paid for, it's not always a guarantee federal firefighters can get from Congress the money they need for the burn season. (Remember 2012's Hurricane Sandy, when Congress struggled to pass $51 billion needed for clean-up?) And FEMA has its own budget problems.
There's one thing both sides can agree on: With almost 5 million acres already burned or burning in Alaska and an epic drought out West providing kindling, experts are predicting yet another horrendous fire season.
"All lightning episodes, except those producing heavy rain, will be capable of generating new fires," warns the National Interagency Fire Center in its 2015 projections.
Whether they have the money for it or not, federal firefighters are going to have to find a way to do battle -- even if it means risking a worse fire season next year.
"Part of the politics of fire," Mahoney said, "is for the most part, when we have big fires, the public wants them put out."
[This story has been corrected to reflect the fact the U.S. Forest Service is under the Department of Agriculture and that Mahoney no longer works for and does not speak for the Pew Charitable Trusts]