Worsening A Warming-Fueled Wildfire Season, Sequestration Threatens Firefighting Efforts

Due to sequestration, the federal government will be at least $115 million short of normal wildfire fighting capacity during this year’s wildfire season. This is particularly problematic as large portions of the U.S. face a serious drought and extremely dry conditions. As the Washington Post reported, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack said “I hope we can get through this fire season without any fatalities.”

A new report from the House Appropriation committee Democrats found that the Forest service “will have 500 fewer firefighters, 50-70 fewer fire engines, and two fewer aircraft because of sequestration.” Some of the equipment it does still have is outdated — such as the 50-years-old-on-average tanker planes that have crashed multiple times in the last decade, killing 14 people.

A Fox News radio AM talk show expressed incredulity that President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Vilsack “could not find $115 million of fat in the budget so they cut firefighters.” One of the more harmful aspects of sequestration is that the cuts take place “across-the-board” and do not permit the same flexibility in moving funds around within an agency.

Because last year’s wildfire season was so severe, the USDA Forest Service faced a $400 million shortfall for active firefighting and had to borrow money from fire prevention programs to cover the costs. These programs included paying for brush removal from public lands and protecting against invasive plants, disease, insect infestations, and fires. Eventually Congress reimbursed the Forest Service for the shortfall via the 2013 Continuing Resolution but the delays hurt prevention efforts. Last year’s fire season consisted of 67,700 fires burned 9 million acres.

This year, as of May 3, there have been 13,115 wildfires, burning 153,000 acres. Compounding the restraints posed by the inflexible sequester, agencies foresee a $700 million deficit in direct firefighting activities, so similar programs will be de-funded (such as a hazardous-fuels-reduction program to remove long-burning combustible materials from the path of fires).

Congress calculates wildfire suppression funds by averaging the cost over the last ten years. As climate change worsens drought year after year, this calculation becomes deficient. The wildfire season used to range between June and September, but has now expanded to include May and October.

The Western U.S. faces low mountain snowpack, and the most recent U.S. Seasonal Drought Monitor Outlook finds that “drought is forecast to either develop or persist across the western contiguous U.S. as this region enters its dry season.”

Dry conditions in nearly half the country make hampered fire management budgets and sequestration cuts even more dangerous for residents and will lead to even more shortfalls this season. A recent report found that climate change will double the area burned by wildfires by 2050.

Drought and wildfires, in addition to harming people and property, also have dramatic impacts on insects like monarch butterflies, as well as mammals, birds, reptiles, and nearly every plant in the region.

Local communities are trying to face climate adaptation issues alongside the federal government. Texas is preparing for record drought by creating a “rainy day” infrastructure water fund, though none of the legislators acknowledge that climate change is a primary cause of increasing droughts.

A recent report from the General Accounting Office found that the federal government needs to do a better job helping local governments adapt to climate change and integrate climate impacts into infrastructure planning. The report identified roads, bridges, wastewater systems, and federal facilities as particularly vulnerable. Sequestration makes it nearly impossible for the federal government to help local communities adapt to and prepare for climate change-fueled extreme weather and wildfires.

15 Responses to Worsening A Warming-Fueled Wildfire Season, Sequestration Threatens Firefighting Efforts

  1. Bernd says:

    “…. at least $115 million short of normal wildfire fighting capacity during this year’s wildfire season”.

    Source from U.S. Census Bureau 2013 estimated Population is – 315,858,000 (Wiki)

    This is indeed very worrying.
    What is the Washington Post reporting?
    Government of 315 million people cant raise $ 115 million?

    Lets put it into other words.
    36 cents a year, for every single American calculated over a hole year.
    Or better, 3 cents per month, for those which cant afford it to pay in full and to pay a monthly installment.

    Now this is indeed a huge burden on every US citizen, how government is protecting their citizens as they should!

    Government does not have a glue there to get the money from?

    Well I have not only criticism, I have also answers to fix the problem.

    Government, lets increase the tax (this is normal the way what a government does), to protect the population,

    … by lets say $ 10,00/year on the income tax (with the rest they can finance other shortcomings, e.g. military, where it is this days difficult to find any supporters)

    … or lets introduce a wildfire-airport-tax on every commercial flight for each passenger in the US by 3 cents (this will also raise a lot of money more, needed for other hidden expenses, additional funds nobody needs to know)

    … or lets introduce a wildfire-wallstreet-tax on every transaction of shares traded (this should raise even more funds where nobody knows what with the rest will happen)

    … or my last suggestion, keep quiet and raise this $ 115 million shortfall to protect the US population from wildfires.
    There is no need to inform citizens of every cent government spends, it is not being done in other sectors e.g. military.

    By the way, in Europe it is similar, governments moan about the costs of fighting wildfires.
    The European Union claims in the 5 most effected countries (Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece) that it spends annually 1 Billion Euro ($ 1,3 Billion). The EU has even bought 2 Canadair CL-215 (produced somewhere between 1969-1990, I wonder for which price).
    Two aircrafts which are fixed stationed now in Corsica, standby for those which require these 2 historic water stealth fighters.
    Each year this two aircrafts are 5 times (high estimate) requested from one of this countries. So they found out they can rent it out to other south-east European countries, if need arises.

    But on the other hand e.g. Portugal is claiming from different official recourses, that it uses “only” 60 to 120 million Euro on wildfire fighting.

    Multiplying this by the five countries (countries which are roughly the same effected, Spain more, France less), it works out 300 to 600 million Euro is needed annually for this 5 countries.
    Now, what happens to the other 400 to 700 million Euro the EU is claiming?

    Well guys and gals, the money is being somewhere wasted down the hole line, “in the duty of fighting wildfires” by our governments. Money most properly stays in administration offices to monitor two CL-215 on the ground.

    Otherwise I cant explain it!

    Coming myself from this industry, I calculated that seamless air observation and immediate response effective fire fighting could cost in the EU effected countries about 2 – 5 cents a day for every citizen in the fire season.

    However, the health costs from not attending to or not quick enough to wild fires is much more than those 2-5 cents/day.
    Not calculated in this equation the direct costs of damages to the industry, dwellings, forests, houses and infrastructure from wildfires.

    I ask the global question (as it is not only in the US so), what are governments actually doing for us and with our taxes we pay, that they cant raise this “enormous amounts”?

  2. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Why no comments? ME

  3. Bernd says:

    ME, a very good question!

    I have written a long comment more than one hour before yours, but my comment is still on hold with,
    “Your comment is awaiting moderation.” May 16, 2013 at 2:11 am

  4. Raul M. says:

    Oh, I’ve been busy trying to improve the neurological outlook of having cat scratch fever for many years (Bartonelle). I did see an ad on the Internet for a blood test to see if a cat has the disease for $89. Many thanks to industry and Doctors for understanding the importance of doing so.

  5. Raul M. says:

    Bartonella ?

  6. Raul M. says:

    Some say that 40% of cats will catch and carry Bartonella at some point during their lives. So it is quite common among cats and may be spread to people by a simple cat scratch.

  7. Raul M. says:

    Meanwhile fire season has started and storm season is about to start.

  8. Jackie says:

    As Speaker Boehner has said States will have to take care of themselves. Congress will continue to cut Federal programs but increase debt ceiling for flight delays and anything Corporations, special interest groups need. Congress is now cutting more services as they leave in 5 days for another long vacation to do fundraising and tell voters have bad Obama is.

  9. Matthew Tanner says:

    Simple — let it burn. If someone’s house is in the way and burns, only pay them to rebuild somewhere where there is less fire danger. Do the same with flood zones.

  10. Amorette says:

    Let it burn. As someone who lives in Montana, let me explain what that means.

    Do you drink water in the in the Missouri/Mississippi river drainage? It will be less clean and have more dirt and other run-off because soil has been destabilized by the loss of ground cover.

    Do you eat? Meat or vegetables are grown in rural areas. Last year, a grass fired burn hundreds of thousands of acres near where I live. (Hundreds of thousands. The west is BIG, something lots of folks in the east don’t understand.) That meant killing cattle and wildlife, from bunnies to eagles to elk. That meant no grazing in many of these areas this year because they are too fragile as they regenerate from just after a fire. Beef prices up? Stop complaining if you believe in ‘let it burn.’ Bread prices up? Sorry, the fields were lost to fire.

    How do you feel about air pollution? Do you have any idea how much junk is put into the air by hundreds of thousands to millions of acres on fire? Hint: It’s a lot.

    Do you think you should depopulate rural areas? Towns have been overrun by fire. Unless you have seen a wildfire, you have no clue how hot or how dangerous it can be. Just figuring some suburban home is burned does not take into account those of us in small towns that can literally be burnt to the ground.

    This is short-sighted and stupid to think burning millions of acres is any kind of solution.

    But then, the folks behind the sequester are short-sighted and stupid. Unless it applies to them. Then the rules don’t count. (Can you say airline?)

  11. Stephan Taylor says:

    EVERY area of the country has some natural disaster or three that happen with some regularity.

    Demanding that people not build in wildfire prone areas would leave much of California depopulated. Demanding that citizens not live in flood zones leaves large portions of the coast and practically any and all available farmland without anyone living there.

    We should inform people of the dangers, encourage responsible building, and protect our citizens as much as possible from disasters.

  12. kermit says:

    Why, we have to cut back on the fire fighting budgets; the US legislature has voted to spend half a billion dollars for new Abrams tanks for the US Army, even though the army says they don’t want them…

    Jobs are important, don’t you know, even if the GOP claims that government spending doesn’t help the economy. I guess the US Forest Service just has to grease the wheels of the legislative engine if they want political support. I expect the final days of civilization will see various departments of government bribing politicians directly for better funding. Or do we have that already?

  13. katy says:

    Climate research nearly unanimous on human causes, survey finds

    Of more than 4,000 academic papers published over 20 years, 97.1% agreed that climate change is anthropogenic

  14. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment Bernd. Given that we all face increasing risks from intense fires, the subject is critical, ME

  15. Laurence Glavin says:

    Michelle Malkin has property in Colorado. I wonder if public money was used to protect that property during the fires last year.