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 Some of the equipment it does still have is outdated — such as the 50-years-old-on-average tanker planes that have crashed multiple times in the last decade, killing 14 people.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.