Wildfires blamed in part on climate change are consuming timber in the U.S. West at such a furious pace that half the Forest Service’s budget is now spent fighting them -- up from 21 percent in 2000.
Add in the firefighting of other agencies, as well as state governments, and the bill to taxpayers runs in the billions of dollars each year. And it’s growing fast, driven by an urbanizing West as well as warmer and drier summers.
The cost has touched off a debate about whether the rush to quench blazes is obscuring the need to prevent fires by thinning deadwood and controlling insects or limit their impact by discouraging home-building in danger-prone areas.
“We don’t always necessarily need more money,” said Kim Rodrigues, a wildfire expert with the University of California’s agricultural and natural resources department in Davis. “But we need more proactive efforts.”
President Barack Obama, citing a National Climate Assessment in May that mentioned wildfires 200 times, is proposing a shift in the way firefighting is funded and put blazes on par with hurricanes and earthquakes. That would boost funding and end the practice of taking money from mitigation and prevention to pay for disaster response.
Federal firefighting costs passed $1 billion for the first time in 2000 and have exceeded that mark every year but two. Together, the Forest Service and Interior Department have averaged $1.54 billion in fire suppression in the past decade. States pay another $1 billion to $2 billion annually, according to Headwaters Economics, a Bozeman, Montana-based research group. Fires affected about 7.3 million acres a year in the most recent decade, up 66 percent from the previous 10 years.
The costs are driven, in part, by more people building homes in areas with a high risk for blazes. About 16 percent of fire-prone private lands in the West are now developed, according to Headwaters.
Insurers have incurred almost $5 billion in wildfire losses during the past 10 years, according to Verisk’s Property Claim Services. Only hurricanes, thunderstorms and winter storms caused more losses, according to the Jersey City, New Jersey-based risk assesment consultant.
The presence of people, some encouraged to move to dangerous areas by local governments that want the tax revenue, pushes agencies to fight fires more aggressively -- at higher cost -- than they might otherwise, while urbanization makes wildland management more difficult, said Bill Stewart, co-director of the Center for Forestry at the University of California-Berkeley.
California, the leading wildfire state, has had more than 2,500 blazes break out so far this year, according to its state firefighting agency. In May, fires in San Diego County that charred more than 31 square miles forced thousands of residents from their homes -- and the peak of the season is only beginning. The state’s dryness may not break until at least November, according to its Water Resources Department.
The National Interagency Fire Center, based in Boise Idaho, says above-normal wildfire potential will persist in California, Arizona and New Mexico this month, with the Pacific Northwest more susceptible later in the summer. A government report in May said federal firefighting will cost about $1.8 billion -- $470 million more than budgeted and short of the costs for August and September, the final two months of the fiscal year.
“We’ve seen record wildfires,” Obama said last week in a town hall meeting in Minneapolis. “We’re having to spend more money now fighting fires than we ever have.”
As emergencies sap funds, less-immediate needs for long-term prevention have suffered. The Forest Service and Interior Department have diverted $3.2 billion from research and other programs in the past 12 years to firefighting, with almost a third of the total shifted since 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service.
Obama is seeking to pay for firefighting in a way similar to disasters such as tornadoes and floods, touting his plan in a video conference with western governors last month. Instead of raiding programs, extra spending would come from the same reserve as other disasters through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The plan would boost fire management 28 percent to $4.25 billion in 2015.
Congress, too, has taken aim at the problem. The $39 billion Homeland Security budget approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee last month included a plan to let communities apply for hazard mitigation grants that would pay for activities such as tree-thinning. As that happened, 14 senators including Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Mike Crapo of Idaho asked the Senate to vote on a plan similar to Obama’s that would increase firefighting money.
“The cheapest fire to fight is one that never burns,” said Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat.
Still, firefighting can be over-emphasized when taxpayers and voters demand immediate action against imminent threats, giving long-range planning short shrift, Stewart, with the University of California, said.
A warmer, drier climate not only makes existing tinder more flammable, it also helps create more fuel for flames, requiring better forest management, Stewart said. Pine beetles that have eaten through trees, killing and drying them, are among the problems the Forest Service hasn’t been able to adequately respond, Stewart said.
“The more they put into fire suppression and not into prevention, the more the fire problem could get worse,” he said. “You need to think more about sustainable management of forests.”
Timber companies, long criticized by environmentalists for over-cutting forests and putting profits before land management, also can contribute to a solution, said Paul Jannke, principal at Forest Economic Advisors in Westford, Massachusetts, an industry representative.
Companies could do more to clean up timber on land scorched by fires or thin forests on public lands, he said.
Logging in government-owned areas plunged 76 percent to less than 3 million board feet from more than 11 million, from in 1988 to 1994, due largely to objections from environmentalists, said Jannke, whose company has worked with Weyerhaeuser Co. (WY), Potlatch Corp. (PCH) and other forest owners.
“If fuel for fires is being accumulated, we can take away some of the fuel, and that makes the fires we do have less damaging,” he said. “We’re not being tapped as a resource.”
Shielding non-firefighting funds is better than raiding them, making federal proposals a good first step, said Jonathan Oppenheimer, senior conservation associate for the Idaho Conservation League. Still, prevention needs to become a bigger focus, he said.
“Historically, firefighting has received a blank check, and you need to get away from that approach,” said Oppenheimer, whose Boise-based organization advocates on fish and wildlife issues.
“We need to do thinning and fuels reduction around homes. We need to manage wildfires to stay away from communities. We need better community planning, so homes don’t move into wild land,” he said. “Otherwise, we’ll just keep seeing pressure to send in the tankers.”
Ultimately, as a changing climate leads to more blazes, attitudes toward wildfires may need to change, Rodrigues said. It may be necessary to let more acres burn as part of long-term forest management, and some fires may not require as forceful a response from a U.S. government accustomed to rushing to help, she said.
“Ecologically, we’re out of balance, and that’s why some of these high-severity fires occur,” she said. “It’s controversial, but sometimes it makes sense to let things burn.
‘‘What we need is better dialogue and strategic thought about these things, before the fires occur.’’
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