Burning money: Cost of fighting wildfires robs funds to prevent them

The cost of fighting wildfires and protecting life and property from harm has exceeded $1 billion every year since 2000, eating into agency resources for forest management and fire preparedness – programs meant to prevent wildfires before they start.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
A firefighter waters down a tree as flames approach a containment line in the King Fire northeast of Sacramento.

News from California this week made it seem as if half the drought-stricken state was ablaze with wind-whipped wildfires, forcing thousands of residents to evacuate, wrecking some vacation plans for Yosemite National Park, and torching hundreds of structures – including 143 homes in the small town of Weed.

All of that is happening and continues to happen as firefighters battle what fire officials say are 23 active wildfires around the state – 17 of those described as “uncontained large fires.”

So far this year, there have been slightly more wildfires (39,927) than there were in 2013 (38,208). But the total acreage burned so far in 2014 (3,002,842 acres) is significantly less than last year (4,006,080 acres).

The previous two years saw even higher numbers of fires and acreage burned. (46,929 fires and 8,657,359 acres in 2012; 58,424 fires and 7,657,359 acres in 2011) The record year was 2006, when 96,385 wildfires burned 9,873,745 acres.

Also going up in smoke are federal firefighting budgets, which have eaten into agency resources for forest management and fire preparedness – programs meant to prevent wildfires before they start.

The expense of fighting wildfires and protecting life and property from harm is nearly four times greater than it was 30 years ago, and it has exceeded $1 billion every year since 2000. The share of the US Forest Service budget devoted to fire management rose from 13 percent in 1991 to more than 40 percent in 2012. The total for all federal agencies last year – Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Fish and Wildlife Service – topped $1.7 billion.

Earlier this year, President Obama asked for $615 million in supplemental funding for firefighting in 2014.

"Two days ago the Forest Service said they have $179 million left for suppression. Last week alone they spent $150-million on suppression efforts,” US Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) of Oregon told Northwest Public Radio this week. “That means next week while we're out of session they'll run out of money and they'll do what they always do, they'll start pulling back money from the fuel reduction, forest health and other programs to fight the fires.”

Rep. DeFazio is sponsoring the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which the Oregon Democrat says “would end the cycle of fire-borrowing by treating catastrophic wildfires like similar major disasters such as floods and hurricanes.”

“Under the bill, routine wildland firefighting costs, which make up about 70 percent of the cost of wildfire suppression, would be funded through a normal budgeting process,” says DeFazio, senior Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. “The true emergency fire events, which represent about 1 percent of wildland fires but eat up 30 percent of the budgeted funds, would be treated like similar major natural disasters.”

The idea is to move fire suppression funding for catastrophic wildfires out of the Forest Service and Interior budgets into an emergency disaster fund to prevent the siphoning of cash from other programs.

The bill has 104 co-sponsors, including 52 Republicans, and there’s a companion bill in the Senate co-sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon and Sen. Mike Crapo (R) of Idaho. So far, however, the Republican-controlled natural resources committee in the House has yet to schedule hearings.

Meanwhile, the King Fire northeast of Sacramento in heavy timber and steep terrain has grown to 80,994 acres. Some structures have been destroyed, and 2,819 people have been evacuated. The fire, caused by a suspected arsonist, is just 10 percent contained. Some 5,000 fire personnel are working to gain control of the blaze.

Farther to the north, just south of the Oregon border, the Happy Camp Complex of fires, sparked by a lightning strike five weeks ago, has grown to 130,139 acres. The perimeter is 72 percent contained.

Officials Saturday declared the Boles Fire in Weed, Calif., fully contained. The fire burned just 479 acres at the edge the small town near Mt. Shasta, but it forced some 1,500 people to evacuate, destroying 143 homes, two churches, and the town library. It also caused major damage to a forest products mill, the main source of jobs in the town.

Weather.com meteorologist Chrissy Warrilow reports that weather conditions in California will become unfavorable over the weekend, as warmer temperatures and drier weather returns to the state through Sunday.

"Unfortunately, much of California is shunted from the Pacific Ocean's moisture, and little to no chance of rain will be in the forecast for much of California until the middle of next week," Ms. Warrilow said.

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