An out-of-control wildfire is just as much a natural disaster as a hurricane or flood. Just ask Californians who fled for their lives or saw their homes burn down in recent years.
But that’s not how wildfires are handled in the federal budget, and it’s taking money away from worthwhile programs in our national forests and parks.
This has to change.
The U.S. Forest Service, the White House, bipartisan supporters in Congress and conservation groups are on the right track. They’re trying to push through legislation (H.R. 167) so that the costs of fighting the few catastrophic wildfires would be paid from emergency funds, just as when other natural disasters strike. The Forest Service and Interior Department would continue to fund routine firefighting from their regular budgets.
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The House and Senate are expected to start working this week on Forest Service appropriations. Under the current setup, money is set aside in its budget for wildfires at the 10-year average cost. But when costs go beyond that, the agency must borrow from non-firefighting programs.
That has happened in eight of the last 10 years, including $440 million in 2011-12 and $500 million in 2012-13. The Rim fire in 2013, which burned 400 square miles in Stanislaus National Forest and near Yosemite National Park, cost more than $127 million to control.
While these transfers are generally reimbursed, Forest Service officials make a strong case that they do real damage
In California in 2012-13, paying to fight wildfires prevented the agency from buying land along Leech Lake, in the Sierra and at Big Sur. The previous year, repairs on the Pacific Crest trail and in the Inyo and Los Padres national forests didn’t get done. A wastewater project in Lassen National Forest was delayed, and so was a key road in Angeles National Forest.
Some of the work that is put off such as removing brush and other fuel is designed to lessen wildfire damage. So taxpayers end up paying more in the long run.
During the past 30 years, the average wildfire season has grown some 70 days longer, and total acres burned have doubled to 7 million. Between 1995 and 2014, firefighting went from 16 percent of the Forest Service budget to 42 percent.
With climate change and more development near public land, the risk of costly wildfire damage will only increase. The way the federal government funds fighting big wildfires has to adapt with the times.