Fire prevention funds cut as wildfire costs explode

The agency has already reallocated $450 million this year, pushing the total expense of firefighting and prevention to more than half of the Forest Service's $5.1 billion annual budget

San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO — Fighting wildfires isn’t cheap, not with all the boots on the ground, the engines and dozers, the airplanes and fuel. And this year’s fire season — which is shaping up to be one of the most destructive in the modern history of the West — is also on track to be the costliest.

That’s a problem, particularly for those writing checks in Washington, who are having to move millions from one part of the federal budget to another to balance the books.

In a potentially dangerous paradox, the U.S. Forest Service, which covers the bulk of the nation’s firefighting costs, is paying the tab in part by cutting programs that can limit the spread of wildfires in the first place, a top agency official said in an interview.

“Fire suppression is cannibalizing the Forest Service budget,” said Robert Bonnie, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who oversees the Forest Service. “Fewer people are doing research, restoration, range-land management.”

While it’s not the first time federal firefighting expenses have run over budget, state and federal officials note an unrelenting increase in costs as the climate warms and forests grow thicker as a result of decades of fire suppression.

Since the July 1 start of the budget year, California has racked up a $277 million bill battling blazes — more than what’s typically spent in an entire year, state records show.

Lake County’s Valley Fire and the Butte Fire in Amador and Calaveras counties alone drew 6,500 firefighters and have run up bills of $44.6 million and $65 million, respectively, while claiming at least six lives and ruining more than 1,700 homes.

Last weekend, another 800 firefighters rushed to the Tassajara Fire in Big Sur, which authorities said was sparked by a person in the process of committing suicide.

“The more and more damaging fires you have, the more costly it is,” said Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Meanwhile, federal officials, who manage fires on U.S. property in California and most other states, are approaching their record one-year outlay of $1.65 billion, adjusted for inflation, in 2002. They’ve spent $1.51 billion on firefighting so far this budget year, which for them ends in October.

Rough Fire burns 2 months
Wildfires in Washington and Alaska, in addition to California, have required big responses. The federally managed, 140,000-acre Rough Fire in the southern Sierra, the state’s largest and most obstinate blaze this year, has burned for nearly two months and pulled thousands to the front lines.

The four-year drought has dried out trees and brush on the West Coast, worsening blazes that threaten communities that are increasingly built into forests. Over a longer term, the practice of extinguishing wildfires — instead of allowing them to burn and proactively clearing out breaks in vegetation — has led to hotter and more dangerous blazes, according to state and federal officials.

While California keeps an emergency fund that is expected to cover the mounting costs of firefighting — a fund supplemented by disaster aid from Washington — the federal government is having a tougher time managing expenses.

Last week, the Forest Service transferred $250 million to firefighting and prevention from non-fire programs, including watershed protection, habitat restoration, wildlife study and visitor services. Many of these programs, while not directly helping to stop fires, improve the health of forests and make them more resilient to burns.

The agency manages many of the lakes, campgrounds and trails in the Sierra Nevada.

Most of USFS budget
The agency has already reallocated $450 million this year, pushing the total expense of firefighting and prevention to more than half of the Forest Service’s $5.1 billion annual budget. Twenty years ago, dealing with fire accounted for just 16 percent of the budget.

“The trajectory here is not good,” said Undersecretary Bonnie. “The problem now is we’re seeing more expansive fires and more acres burned, and we’re having to make bigger expenditures as a result.”

By 2025, two-thirds of the agency’s expenses are likely to be tied up in firefighting, according to federal estimates.

The Forest Service, along with the Department of the Interior and with support from the White House, is urging Congress to address the financial squeeze.

Last week the agencies sent a request to Congressional leaders to use disaster funds to pay for firefighting costs once they reach a certain level — the same way hurricanes and tornadoes are covered. 

Natural disaster
“With the dramatic growth in wildland fire over the last three decades and an expected doubling again by mid-century, it only makes sense that Congress begin treating catastrophic wildfire as the natural disaster that it is,” the agencies wrote.

Congress has introduced competing plans similar to what the agencies are calling for, though there’s been no agreement on how to proceed.

This year, fires have burned 8.9 million acres across the country, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho — just shy of the record 9.87 million acres scorched in 2006. The records date to 1960.

“I can’t make a prediction but what I can say is there is above-average potential to have significant fire through the end of October,” said Jennifer Jones, a spokeswoman for the fire center. “We’ve got a lot of potential and a long way to go.”

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