Politics & Government

Climate change could burn a hole in the Forest Service’s budget

A firefighter walks past a back-burn as flames leap along the American River Parkway near Cal Expo in Sacramento, Calif. Experts say climate change is making fire seasons longer and harsher.
A firefighter walks past a back-burn as flames leap along the American River Parkway near Cal Expo in Sacramento, Calif. Experts say climate change is making fire seasons longer and harsher. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Climate change appears to be fueling more wildfires as forest service officials are increasingly concerned they don’t have the funds to effectively handle another devastating season.

While Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told senators last week he’s got enough budget funds to deal with most of the 7,000 fires that occur annually in national forests, “it's that 1 to 2 percent of our fires, that when we have a very active fire season, that goes way beyond our capability to handle within our appropriations."

In 1995, 16 percent of the Forest Service was dedicated to fire, according to a 2015 agency report. Now, it’s more than half. Tidwell said the Forest Service predicts that fire programs will be 67 percent of the budget by 2025. In an op-ed in July of last year, Tom Vilsack, former secretary of agriculture, the agency that runs the Forest Service, lamented that the agency was becoming “the Fire Service.”

Some experts say that’s because active fire seasons are becoming more and more common due to climate change.

“Big fires occur when it’s warm and dry, that doesn’t take rocket science to figure out,” said John Abatzoglou, an associate professor in the department of geography at the University of Idaho. He co-authored a study last year linking human-caused climate change to the increased threat of wildfires.

Abatzoglou said prolonged periods of drought and low humidity, the “ingredients” for a wildfire, have become more common in recent years, a trend that is likely to persist. He said about half of the increase in “fuel aridity” — a measure of the dryness of forests that indicates higher fire risk — can be attributed to human activity.

In a statement, Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the Forest Service said fire suppression has become more difficult due to a number of factors including the need to protect the increasing number of homes in wildfire areas, hazardous fuel buildups, drought and longer fire seasons.

The Forest Service acknowledged the impact of climate change in a 2015 report, issued during the Obama administration. It found, “Climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970. The U.S. burns twice as many acres as three decades ago and Forest Service scientists believe the acreage burned may double again by mid-century.”

H. Sterling Burnett, a research fellow on environmental policy at the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank, disagreed. He said that the increased risk of wildfires is attributable to mismanagement of national forests. Burnett said reduced access to forests and decreased logging has led to a buildup of dead and dying trees, which is causing more severe fires.

“You have to get rid of the fuel if you want to stop the fire,” he said. “You can’t stop lightening, you can’t stop the heat.”

Burnett acknowledged that there has been an increase in carbon emissions, but doesn’t think human activity is affecting global patterns or contributing to an increased risk of wildfires.

“I think CO2 emissions and modest temperature rises are largely irrelevant to this problem,” he said.

President Donald Trump has already reversed many of the previous administration’s climate policies, pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accords and signing an executive order rolling back President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

If Trump follows through on all his plans, that could lead to as much as 1.8 gigatonnes (a billion metric tons) more carbon dioxide emitted in 2030, according to analysts at the recent Bonn climate talks in May, which Abatzoglou said could exacerbate the wildfire problem.

“Certainly, policies that were to do a 180 on any sort of mitigation are not desirable from a climate perspective,” he said.

Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said he believed climate change was making wildfires worse, but said he supported the withdrawal from the Paris agreement, which he said placed an unequal burden on the U.S., and ending some of the Obama-era climate regulations, which he said should have been legislated.

“That doesn’t mean that we’re walking away from addressing climate change,” he said.

According to data from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, which coordinates wildfire response around the country, “megafires,” those that burn more than 100,000 acres, are most common in the Western states. California, Idaho, Alaska, Oregon and Washington have all endured multiple megafires in the past decade.

Tidwell said the 10 biggest fires last year cost almost $300 million alone to battle. Because wildfires are not considered natural disasters, the forest service doesn’t have access to emergency funds if costs exceed projections and often has to raid the budgets of other programs to pay for firefighting, a practice called “fire borrowing.”

As a result, “We need your help and ongoing leadership,” Tidwell told senators at a budget hearing last week. Trump’s budget for fiscal 2018, which begins Oct. 1, increases funding for fire prevention and suppression but some key senators fear it was still too little.

“I’m incredibly concerned by this budget’s failure to adequately fund firefighting,” said Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M.

That’s why there’s a bipartisan effort to help address the shortfall.

Simpson and Reps. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., and Jim Costa, D-Calif., are proposing the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which would treat wildfires like other natural disasters, making it easier for forest service to get funding for the megafires.

“We just gotta fix this problem,” Simpson told McClatchy.

A similar plan was proposed in recent years but went nowhere. Simpson said that while the bill has drawn support from Westerners, it’s more difficult to convince “the budgeteers” from areas where wildfires are not a problem of the need to allow the forest service to spend more.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Rep. Schrader said the Congressman believes there are enough votes in the House to pass the bill, but Simpson was less bullish.

“I’m never confident until it passes, but we’ll keep working on it,” Simpson said.

Contact: Anshu Siripurapu 202-383-6009 anshusiripurapu@mcclatchydc.com

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