Think Wildfires Are Bad This Year? Wait Until You See the Bill 

Photographer: Jorge Cruz/AFP via Getty Images
A wildfire threatens homes in San Marcos, California, on May 15, 2014.

This is the season of wildfire.

Twenty-six large fires are burning in seven states in the U.S. West, and 1.58 million acres have already been scorched. That’s actually a slow season compared with the conflagrations that have swept the country over the last decade. But don’t get used to it. The risk of wildfires is rising, and so is the cost of keeping them contained.

Here’s a chart of the annual cost of fighting fires racked up by federal agencies. The numbers exclude the cost to state governments, which would add another $1 billion to $2 billion annually.

Source: National Interagency Fire Center

Source: National Interagency Fire Center

The world is warming, which means less snowpack in the spring, longer fire seasons and tinderboxes shifting northward. This year’s mild fire season is more a hiccup from the climate past than a taste of what’s to come, according to the latest U.S. climate assessment. Drought, accompanied with hotter weather, is driving more wildfire, and increased urbanization in the West is adding to the real-estate risk.

The first time federal agencies spent more than $1 billion suppressing wildfires was in 2000. Since then, the U.S. has passed that mark 12 out of the last 14 years. Agencies responsible for containing the damage are running in constant deficit, forced to divert funds from fire-prevention activities such as controlled burns to pay for direct fire suppression. There’s even a name for the budget shift: “fire borrowing.” Over the last two decades, the Forest Service has reduced foresters and other staff by over 30 percent while doubling the number of firefighters.

The latest federal estimate, from May, projected this year’s fires would cost roughly $1.8 billion -- $470 million more than budgeted. Fortunately, this year’s mild U.S. summer has limited the assault. The 1.58 million acres burned in the U.S. as of July 23 was less than half the year-to-date average for the prior ten years. Weather conditions continue to help firefighters in Oregon and Washington, where 18 large fires are still blazing.

Source: National Interagency Fire Center

Source: National Interagency Fire Center

Most of the U.S. has had average or below-average temperatures this year. In fact, the U.S. has gotten off easy for a while now. Last year had below-normal temperatures across North America, even as much of the globe cooked. That’s contributed to a reprieve in U.S. wildfires.

North America has been unique in that regard. On a global scale, May and June were the hottest ever recorded for those months, and April tied with 2010 as hottest. Last year ranked between second and sixth warmest on record for the planet’s surface, depending on the temperature dataset used, according to the annual State of the Climate report NOAA released last week.

Here’s a map of the planet’s surface temperatures so far this year:

Source: NCDC/NOAA; data source GHCN-M version 3.2.2 and ERSST version 3b

Source: NCDC/NOAA; data source GHCN-M version 3.2.2 and ERSST version 3b

While the eastern half of the U.S. had a cool start to the year, the West recorded record-hot temperatures. California had its warmest first half of the year on record, with an average temperature 4.8 degrees Fahrenheit above average. By late June, 36.5 percent of the state was in exceptional drought.

That lines up with next month’s outlook for wildfires by the National Interagency Fire Center:

Source: Predictive Services, National Interagency Coordination Center, Boise, Idaho, July 1, 2014

Source: Predictive Services, National Interagency Coordination Center, Boise, Idaho, July 1, 2014

The recent slowdown in wildfires is a blip on the long-term trend. The area of forest that burned in the West from 1987 to 2003 was 6.7 times the forested area burned from 1970 to 1986, according to the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Warmer summer temperatures are projected to extend the wildfire season 10 to 30 percent, according to the report, and in Canada could double the annual area burned by the end of the century.

The world is getting hotter. The costs are adding up.

More from Tom Randall:

Follow @tsrandall on Twitter for more conflagrations.

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