Report: Cost of fighting wildfire reaches tipping point, threatening priority Forest Service programs

A new Forest Service report reveals that the costs of putting out wildfires now accounts for half of the agency's budget, and could rise even more in the future.

Credit: Josh O'Connor (USFWS), flickr.

A new Forest Service report reveals that the costs of putting out wildfires has skyrocketed, jeopardizing other essential forest programs.

The report, released on Aug. 5, indicates a serious tipping point for the agency with half of the Forest Service Budget usurped by wildfire costs.

Fueled by climate change, houses built closer to fire-prone areas and other factors, higher wildfire costs mean less spending on other essential priorities in our national forests.

The Rising Cost of Wildfire Operations report  estimates that within a decade, an even greater portion—two out of every three dollars—will go to fighting wildfires. “We need a new approach to wildfires, which are burning through a large and ever-growing portion of the Forest Service budget,” said Cameron Witten, government relations associate with The Wilderness Society. “This hurts the programs that all Americans need the Forest Service to provide—programs that protect healthy watersheds, clean drinking water, outstanding outdoor recreation, hunting and angling opportunities.”

The Forest Service needs a more sustainable funding structure to strengthen their capacity to manage all the uses that we value in our national forests, Witten said.

The new report reveals a number of alarming figures:

  • In 1995, fire accounted for 16 percent of the appropriated budget. Now it is 52 percent, and that has resulted in a 39 percent reduction in non-fire personnel.
  • Unless Congress finds a better funding solution, the budget portion devoted to fire could exceed 67 percent by 2025.
  • Owing to climate change, fire seasons now average 78 days longer than they were in 1970.
  • Twice as many acres burn now compared to three decades ago, and the acreage burned may double again by mid-century.
  • Increasing development in fire-prone areas adds stress to the Forest Service efforts to combat fire.
  • While able to suppress or manage 98 percent of fires, the 1 or 2 percent that are “catastrophic mega fires” consume 30 percent or more of annual wildfire costs—and the severity of those large fires is due to worsen as climate change continues.
  • This rising cost of fires reduces Forest Service staffing in vital non-fire program areas, which hurts the agency’s ability to conduct forest restoration and management, recreation, research, watershed protection, land conservation, and other required activities, including those that help mitigate the risk of fire.

The Wilderness Society supports a solution to the funding problem.  In Congress, legislation has been proposed to fix “fire borrowing,” a destructive cycle in which the Forest Service is forced to take funds from other forest programs when its allotted wildfire funds are used up. This is essentially robbing Peter to pay Paul to put out fires. 

We are calling on Congress to pass the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2015, S. 235 and H.R.167. This act would provide a bipartisan way to plan adequate funding for managing wildfire disasters, in the same way Congress budgets for all other natural disasters.

This would allow the Forest Service to devote more attention to keeping our forests healthy -- including ways to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires and ensuring that people can enjoy their visits to these national treasures.