Burning through over 9.8 million acres — an area roughly the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined — the 2015 wildfire season was one of the worst on record.
It also ended up being the most expensive wildfire season on record, costing the U.S. Forest Service $1.71 billion for the year, according to USA Today. That total surpasses the previous record of $1.67 billion set in 2002.
This year’s fire season got off to an unusually early start, with fires raging in California as early as February. Even now, there are still a few fires burning throughout the West, and they are expected to push the 2015 total of acres burned over the 2006 record. Over the past 35 years, fire seasons have gotten longer, and the area burned by wildfires has doubled, according to a report published this year in Nature Communications.
The West was hit especially hard by wildfires this year, with high temperatures and widespread drought contributing to highly volatile and quick burning wildfires. Alaska saw a record-breaking season, with over 5.1 million acres burned. Washington saw its largest fire in state history, with the Okanogan Complex fire burning more than 400 square miles. Oregon and California also saw extremely intense wildfire seasons, fueled by low snowpack and high summer temperatures that left vegetation and underbrush brittle, dry, and vulnerable to wildfires. Drought conditions throughout the West were so widespread that in Washington, the Olympic Peninsula — which contains one of the best remaining examples of a temperate rain forest — battled a wildfire for months, a rare occurrence for the normally wet and temperate western part of the state.
On average, the Forest Service spends about $1.3 billion on fire suppression, but that cost has been steadily rising in recent years. This year, for the first time ever, more than half of the Forest Service’s budget was dedicated to fire, meaning that other, non-fire programs — like watershed management or road maintenance — have seen their budgets decline. This means that programs like forest management, which can help reduce the risk of wildfires, are suffering as wildfire suppression costs continue to increase.
“The future trend will be hotter, longer, and more severe and ultimately more costly fire seasons, which 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,” USDA communications director Matt Herrick told USA Today.
In August, the Forest Service released a report detailing the rising cost of their fire-fighting operations. The Forest Service, the report said, is at a “tipping point,” with their resources pushed to the brink by increasingly volatile and lengthy fire seasons.
“Climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970,” the report reads. “The U.S. burns twice as many acres as three decades ago and Forest Service scientists believe the acreage burned may double again by mid-century. Increasing development in fire-prone areas also puts more stress on the Forest Service’s suppression efforts.”
By 2025, the report estimates that the cost of fighting fires could exceed $1.8 billion.
In September, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said that the U.S. Forest Service spent $200 million a week battling wildfires across the country in 2015. The sheer scale of wildfires also required 30,000 people to be deployed across a dozen states in an effort to fight the fires, the most since 2000 according to the Washington Post.
In the year-end fiscal package that Congress just approved, fire suppression gets a $600 million boost in 2016, a 50 percent increase over what was budgeted this year. That would bring the budgeted amount to just below what the Forest Service ended up spending this year, according to the Los Angeles Times.
But Robert Bonnie, who oversees the Forest Service budget for the USDA, called the increase a “band-aid” and reiterated that the Forest Service needs a long-term fix, not a one-year increase.