According to the Department of Agriculture, government spending to fight wildfires in 2014 will exceed what Congress budgeted for the task by a good $400 million.
A new report released Friday by the Department projects that spending by the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior (DOI) to deal with wildfires this season will hit $1.8 billion, versus the $1.4 billion Congress actually allocated to the task for this year. That will force the departments to engage in what’s called “fire borrowing” — covering the gap by pulling funds away from regular thinning of forest and brush as well as controlled burns that reduce the number and severity of wildfires. It’s something they’ve had to do for seven of the last twelve years.
The length of fire seasons has ballooned by 60 to 80 days since the 1980s, and the amount of acres consumed by wildfires each year has doubled to more than seven million. Over 1,000 homes were burned last year as more developments are threatened by wildfires than before, which also raises the costs. Thirty-four firefighters were also killed by wildfires in the course of their duty in 2013. All of this has forced the Forest Service — in addition to the fire borrowing — to cut its general staff by almost a third while doubling the number of firefighters on its payroll.
“The forecast released today demonstrates the difficult budget position the Forest Service and Interior face in our efforts to fight catastrophic wildfire,” said Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Robert Bonnie. “While our agencies will spend the necessary resources to protect people, homes and our forests, the high levels of wildfire this report predicts would force us to borrow funds from forest restoration, recreation and other areas.”
The report also lays some of the blame for the multi-decade build-up at the feet of climate change. “With climate change contributing to longer and more intense wildfire seasons, the dangers and costs of fighting those fires increase substantially,” said DOI Assistant Secretary of Policy, Management and Budget Rhea Suh. The overall effect of climate change, especially in the western and southwestern United States, is to raise temperatures and speed up evaporation times, while creating more deluges when precipitation does come. That means less time for the water to soak into the environment, which adds up to drier conditions that are more vulnerable to wildfires.
Drought conditions in California and the rest of American Southwest have persisted relentlessly for several years, and remain at remarkably high levels.
To deal with the problem of fire borrowing, President Obama has proposed creating a special disaster account that the agencies can draw from when wildfire-fighting exceeds projections. That would protect the rest of the agency’s operations and regular duties from suffering compensatory cutbacks. Obama also attempted to boost the Forest Service’s funds in his latest budget, specifically because of concern with growing wildfires. But Congress didn’t go for either idea.
On a higher level, the President wants to create a climate resilience fund, which will be tasked with studying the effect of climate change and the damage it can cause. The goal would be to improve infrastructure, information, and methods to protect against disasters and extreme weather events like wildfires before they happen.