The wildfire season in the U.S. is 60 to 80 days longer than three decades ago, and twice as many acres burn each year.
That’s the sobering news the U.S. Department of agriculture recently reported. The state-by-state report accompanying the press release shows how cuts in firefighting funds have resulted in shifting funding away from other forest programs.
“With longer and more severe wildfire seasons, the current way that the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior budget for wildland fire is unsustainable,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. “Until firefighting is treated like other natural disasters that can draw on emergency funding, firefighting expenditures will continue to disrupt forest restoration and management, research and other activities that help manage our forests and reduce future catastrophic wildfire.”
According to Forest Service figures, about 15 percent of the agency’s budget went to fire suppression in the early 1990s compared to 40 percent or more today.
President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposes a new approach, modeled after bipartisan legislation introduced in the House and Senate. The proposal calls for setting aside an emergency fund similar to what’s available for other natural disasters.
The proposal also calls for creating a special disaster relief cap for extreme fires that exceed Forest Service and Interior Department budgets. A May report projects the median cost for firefighting this year to be nearly $1.8 billion — more than $470 million above the Forest Service’s and Interior Department’s firefighting budgets. The cost overrun could even reach $1 billion, according to some estimates.
Over the past two fiscal years, the Forest Service transferred $440 million and $505 million from forest programs to firefighting. Transferred funding over the past 12 years has totaled about $3.2 billion, according to USDA figures.
A list of forest projects in Montana that lost funding to firefighting last year included road and trail improvements, road dust abatement, forest and wildlife planning, fencing and re-seeding projects to protect watersheds, preparatory work for mine removal projects, NEPA analysis for grazing on the Flathead National Forest, and site investigation for the Libby Asbestos Area in the Kootenai National Forest.
Sen. John Walsh joined Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, last year in sponsoring the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which recognizes that wildfire management costs increase by 22 percent each year and increasingly take up more and more of the Forest Service budget.
“For too long, firefighters and forest communities have not had the resources they need to properly fight fire and manage forest land to help prevent future fires,” Walsh said. “This bill creates a more stable budget, sets clear criteria, and adequately funds our firefighters to the levels they need.”