As wildfires spread, so does the red ink
US and state officials start to boost firefighting budgets and weigh other reforms.
Boston and San Diego
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“I’m looking at homes with dead trees and fields of brown grass, and it’s unbelievable” that such fire-friendly fuel hasn’t been removed, he says. Four homes on his street burned to the ground, but “people still don’t get it. It boggles my mind to think that they’ve forgotten so quickly what can happen here.”
His lament echoes the dismay among firefighting officials from Washington to Sacramento. The number and average size of wildfires have been growing, particularly in the past eight years, and fire seasons are getting longer – a trend many scientists attribute to global warming. Yet more and more people are building homes along what specialists call the wildland-urban interface and few communities strictly enforce fire-prevention measures. The convergence of these factors is straining state and federal firefighting budgets. Now, lawmakers are coming up with proposals for everything from crafting firefighting budgets to regulating development in wildfire-prone areas.
“This is a very solvable problem,” says Rich Fairbanks, wildfire policy specialist with the Wilderness Society, who spent 32 years at the US Forest Service as a firefighter and in related activities. “But you’ll step on some toes” along the way.
At the federal level, the cost of fighting catastrophic fires comes out of the US Forest Service’s regular operating budget. For the third year running, the agency has had to shortchange other activities to meet the cost. Congress appropriated $1.2 billion for firefighting this fiscal year, while expenses are currently projected to top $1.6 billion, according to US Forest Service officials. Some fire-policy analysts expect it to climb closer to $1.9 billion.
“That’s a big deal in terms of its percentage of the US Forest Service budget,” Mr. Fairbanks says.
At the state level, the financial situation can be more acute.
California is the poster child for the problem at the state level. So far this year, the Golden State has battled thousands of fires, mostly in the north, and lost 11 firefighters in the process. Ten years ago, it typically might spend some $44 million a year to fight wildfires. From the opening of the state’s new fiscal year July 1 through mid-August, it reportedly spent $285 million – including $13 million in a single day. And the fall-winter fire season in southern California hasn’t arrived yet.