Fire suppression during the 2013 Rim Fire in California.
Credit: Mike McMillan (USFS) via Stuart Rankin, flickr.
As the costs of fighting wildfires continue to balloon, underfunded U.S. Forest Service programs have been forced to pull money from important conservation programs to keep on top of both wildfire suppression and mitigation.
More funds needed to fight wildfires
Now, years into the problem, the Forest Service, and our wildlands, may soon get some help—if Congress does the right thing.
The Senate and House are considering versions of a bill, the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, that would allow Congress to budget for wildfire suppression (fighting wildfires once they’ve started) while still paying for important conservation initiatives, including wildfire mitigation programs intended to prevent future catastrophic fires (which are expected to become ever more intense, in part due to worsening drought and other effects of climate change).
Other conservation programs robbed to pay for firefighting
Wildfire management costs have increased from 13 percent of the Forest Service budget in 1991 to almost 50 percent today. To keep up, the Forest Service is forced to divert funds from popular and effective programs like the (already cash-strapped) Land and Water Conservation Fund, Legacy Roads and Trails program and National Landscape Conservation System—in addition to the aforementioned programs specifically intended to reduce the cost and severity of future wildfires, through actions like removing dead wood that acts as fuel for fire and managing invasive species that kill trees and make them more likely to burn.
Once conservation programs have been sapped, the agency must rely on Congress to pass emergency funding bills to replenish them. In short, this “robbing Peter to pay Paul” cycle leaves the government scrambling to responsibly manage forests and, perversely, increases the chances of future catastrophic wildfires.
The bills being considered now would help fix this vicious cycle. A more reliable source of funding for wildfire suppression--resembling the way we budget for all other natural disasters, like hurricanes, tornadoes and floods--would eliminate the need to raid conservation programs to pay for the very worst fires.