How Congress Is Making A Mess Of Forest Fire Prevention

It’s the worst wildfire season on record in an equally historic year of drought: Nearly 9 million acres have burned, and up to 20,000 firefighters were on the job at the height of the season. But thanks to congressional budget cuts, the U.S. Forest Service has needed to dip into funds for programs aimed at preventing future giant fires, like removing dried brush and dead wood, in order to combat existing fires. According to the Washington Post:

Recently, Congress stepped in and reimbursed the Forest Service and the Interior Department, which plays a far lesser role in fighting fires, with $400 million from the 2013 Continuing Resolution, allowing fire prevention work to continue. Forestry experts at state agencies and environmental groups greeted it as good news.

But they also faulted Congress for providing at the start of the fiscal year only about half of the $1 billion dollars it actually cost to fight this year’s fires. They argued that the traditional method that members of an appropriations conference committee use to fund wildfire suppression — averaging the cost of fighting wildfires over the previous 10 years — is inadequate at a time when climate change is causing longer periods of dryness and drought, giving fires more fuel to burn and resulting in longer wildfire seasons.

Climate change has caused the wildfire season to grow in intensity and duration, with the typical season now lasting up to 70 days longer. But federal spending on prevention and suppression has fallen since 2010 by $512 million (15 percent), according to The Guardian.

Over seven years, the Forest Service borrowed $2.2 billion from prevention services in order to pay for vital firefighting when the budget fell short. Lawmakers also drew hundreds of millions of dollars from the FLAME fund meant to fund firefighting during particularly bad years.