As wildfires spread, so does the red ink
US and state officials start to boost firefighting budgets and weigh other reforms.
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In Montana, where the sky is big and the population small, firefighting is digging uncomfortably deeper into state coffers. While the federal government typically picks up a hefty portion of the state’s firefighting costs because of its landholdings there, the state is experiencing rapid population growth along the wildland-urban interface, areas where state and local governments typically have sole responsibility for fire protection. In 2006 and 2007, the state spent an average of $45.5 million to protect homes from wildfires. By 2025, costs could reach $124 million for similar fire seasons and current growth trends, according to a study for the state legislature, released Aug. 8.Skip to next paragraph
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State and federal lawmakers are trying to attack the problem on several fronts. In Washington, the House recently passed a bill that would change the way the US Forest Service budgets for fires. The bill, offered up by Nick Rahall (D) of West Virginia and two cosponsors, originally drew wide support from the firefighting community. But at the last moment, a provision was struck that would have relieved the agency from having to use what the bill’s proponents say is an archaic formula for setting aside money to fight wildfires. The bill’s backers hope to get that provision reinserted.
In addition, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California has introduced a bill that would establish model ordinances for building, landscaping, and zoning. It would provide financial incentives for state and local governments that opt to implement them. She’s seeking an additional $910 million in emergency funds from Congress to help the Forest Service cover its firefighting costs this year.
In California, state Sen. Christine Kehoe (D) of San Diego is pressing for an annual tax of $50 per house in areas where the state is responsible for combating wildfires. It’s one of several proposals for raising additional money to fight fires. In January, the state implemented a new building code for fire-prone areas aimed at making homes more fire-resistant.
And firefighting strategies are beginning to shift, albeit slowly and not without controversy, adds Fairbanks, the wildfire policy specialist. Under this emerging approach, fire commanders focus their efforts on the “front” posing the greatest threat to a community. The rest of the fire either is allowed to burn uncontested or is steered toward natural fire breaks, such as canyons. He points out that scientists have long noted the important role periodic fires have played in shaping the West’s ecology, reducing forest fuel loads frequently. The approach not only has the potential to save money on firefighting and on later efforts to reduce fuel loads. It also begins to restore a forest’s natural fire cycle.
The underlying message, he says: “Nature always bats last. We need to rethink our strategies and let forests be forests.”