As wildfires spread, so does the red ink

US and state officials start to boost firefighting budgets and weigh other reforms.

Phil Klein/AP/File
Firefighters watch as a brush fire burns out of control in the Santa Ynez Mountains near Goleta, Calif. Faced with hundreds of big, hard-to-control blazes, California is struggling with what could be its most expensive wildfire season ever, burning through $285 million in the last six weeks alone and up to $13 million a day.

Ten months after a wildfire swept through his neighborhood in Ranch Bernardo, a community nestled in the coastal mountains north of San Diego, Brian Toth is incredulous.

“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.

“States can’t print more money or go into deficit spending,” says Kirk Rowdabaugh, Arizona’s state forester and president of the National Association of State Foresters.

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.

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.

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.”

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