Federal Government Looks To Fund Wildfire Fighting Without Having To Raid Wildfire Prevention

CREDIT: AP Photo/Nick Ut

A wildfire burns in the hills just north of the San Gabriel Valley community of Glendora, Calif., on Thursday, Jan 16, 2014. Southern California authorities have ordered the evacuation of homes at the edge of a fast-moving wildfire burning in the dangerously dry foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.

President Obama announced plans Monday to change how to pay for the rising costs of fighting wildfires. In his proposed budget, to be presented to Congress next month, Obama will call for shifting the costs of fighting the biggest wildfires to the same emergency fund that handles other natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes.

The proposal is designed to avoid forcing the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior to drain fire prevention budgets to pay for big wildfires. According to the White House, over the past two years, these agencies have, out of necessity, taken about $1.1 billion from funds designed to pay for programs to clear brush and thin overgrown forests to reduce fire danger.

About two-thirds of the cost of fighting wildfires is paid for by the federal government, split between the budgets of the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior. Combined, these agencies now spend about $3.5 billion every year tackling fires. This figure is three times what was spent in the 1990s.

Obama unveiled his budget proposal at a meeting with western governors attending the National Governor’s Association conference. 

The number of western wildfires has increased relentlessly over recent decades. A 2012 report compiled by Climate Central calculated that today there are more than twice as many large wildfires — 1,000 acres or more — burning each year than there were in the 1970s. Blazes burning as many as 10,000 acres are seven times as common as four decades ago.

There are several reasons why the cost of battling wildfires has skyrocketed in recent years. On the one hand, climate change has played its part — increasing drought and reducing vital snowpack. A 2011 report from the National Research Council predicted that for every 1.8°F temperature increase, the area burned in the West will quadruple. By the end of the century, temperatures across the U.S. may rise as much as 8°F.

The dramatic expansion of building in what is known as the “wildland urban interface” has also contributed greatly to the wildfire-fighting bill. According to a recent study conducted by the U.S. Forest Service, there are now more than 47 million homes in areas at high risk for wildfires. 10 million of these homes, usually on the edges of forests, were built between 2000 and 2010 alone.

The White House proposal, is very similar to legislation introduced by Senators Ron Wyden, (D-OR) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) and James Risch (R-ID). In the House, Representatives. Kurt Schrader, (D-OR) and Mike Simpson, (R-ID) have called for similar action.

“The largest wildfires are natural disasters, no different from tornadoes or earthquakes,” Wyden said in a statement. “For too long, Oregon forests have suffered from a failure to invest in fire prevention work that can create healthier stands and protect rural communities from catastrophic infernos. This plan finally puts federal policy on the right track.”