The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management desperately need to restore natural fire regimes on nearly 500 million acres of federal land. If they don’t, wildfires could bankrupt both agencies, consume forested communities and permanently wipe out millions of acres of forest.
Study after study shows wildfires have grown more intense and deadly and the long-term costs of the fire are often 30 times as much as the cost of fighting it initially.
Only one problem.
The Forest Service and other agencies spend so much money fighting fires, they can’t afford to prevent them.
In 1995, the Forest Service spent about 16 percent of its budget on fighting fires. But in 2016, it spent about half its budget on wildfires. By 2025, that will rise to a projected 67 percent of its budget.
The federal cost of fighting fires remained closer to $300 million annually for years, but now has topped $3 billion — en route to $4 billion.
To cope with that ruinous rise, the Forest Service has cut the budget for everything else by about 39 percent — including forest thinning and restoration projects that can turn a raging crown fire into a beneficial ground fire.
The Forest Service has for the past four years annually pleaded with Congress to end “fire borrowing,” the practice of shifting money from things like forest restoration and maintenance into the relentlessly growing budget for fighting fires.
Western senators like John McCain and Jeff Flake have repeatedly introduced legislation that would do that — setting up a disaster fund for major fires like the Rodeo-Chediski. This would resemble the way the federal government pays for natural disasters like hurricanes.
Currently, the Forest Service fire budget is based on a rolling, 10-year average. But since the cost of fighting fires has jumped so dramatically in the past decade, the firefighting budget never has enough money.
Rep. Paul Gosar has urged a different approach, seeking to waive most environmental review requirements for thinning projects or salvage logging projects after a wildfire.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service is pursuing the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, which includes completing environmental review on hundreds of thousands of acres of thinning projects all at once, in hopes a small-tree timber industry can then move much more quickly to thin a million acres or more.
Unfortunately — the experts say not only will the problem get much worse before it gets better — it’s already much worse than we admit.
For starters, although the Trump administration has agreed to work on overhauling the budget structure to avoid “fire borrowing,” the administration also proposed a $970 million cut in Forest Service funding for the upcoming fiscal year, along with a $500 million increase in the fire budget. The proposal would end up gutting most Forest Service programs — including thinning and restoration.
Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-Tucson) said “we’re always robbing from the Forest Service budget that can pay for other things in order to suppress fires, and this budget reduces the overall Forest Service budget, which then reduces the ability to fight forest fires.”
The Forest Service prepared a report this year on fire borrowing that pointed out the constant diversion of money has wreaked havoc on the $4.7 billion Forest Service budget.
“The agency is at a tipping point,” the report observed.
The fire season itself has increased by an average of 78 days in the U.S. due to climate change. The increased heat and drought has compounded the effect of a century of grazing, fire suppression and logging that has dramatically increased tree. Fires now burn twice as many acres on average as they did a decade ago. Moreover, those fires often burn with far greater intensity than they did historically.
Most of the fires remain small and the Forest Service still puts out 98 percent of the fires during the peak fire season quickly. But the 1-2 percent of fires that escape control now do far more damage. The six worst firefighting seasons since 1960 have all occurred since 2000.
Fire staffing in the Forest Service has risen from 5,700 employees in 1998 to more than 12,000 in 2015. During that same period, the number of employees doing everything else has gone from 18,000 to 11,000 — a 39 percent decline.
The shift in resources has debilitated everything else the Forest Service does in the past 15 years. Declines include:
Vegetation and watershed management: 24 percent
Capital improvement and maintenance: 68 percent
Roads: 46 percent
Deferred maintenance: 95 percent
Recreation, historical and wilderness: 15 percent
Land ownership management: 33 percent
Wildlife and fisheries: 18 percent
All of that comes before this year’s expensive fire season and the proposed overall cut of perhaps $1 billion.
Even with that massive increase in fire spending, firefighters remain almost helpless in the face of the worst fires. The Yarnell, Rodeo-Chediski, Dude and other fires proved almost impossible to stop during the worst of conditions — no matter what federal agencies threw into the fight.
Moreover, several studies have challenged the value of the expensive air attack on fires that have escaped initial efforts. One study by researchers from the Forest Service and the University of Montana found that helicopters made no difference when it came to holding fire lines.
Instead, research suggests that thinning projects around vulnerable communities, Firewise yard clearing and fire-adapted building codes play the dominant role in saving communities from advancing flames. Air tankers make little difference.
But wait: It’s worse than even that looks.
The indirect and long-term costs of catastrophic wildfires total two to 30 times more than the cost of actually fighting the fire, according to a study by the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition.
The study totaled the full costs of six major fires, including the Rodeo-Chediski.
The $46.5 million cost of fighting the fire accounted for just 15 percent of the total $308 million cost of the fire. The additional costs include things like $123 million in property losses, $139 million in rehabilitation costs over the next three years, $8 million in lost sales taxes and job losses and other long-term costs.
The study also focused on the Cerro Grande Fire in New Mexico, a controlled burn that got out of control and consumed 43,000 acres and 260 homes. The fire threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Bandelier National Monument and forced the evacuation of 18,000 people.
The $33.5 million spent fighting the fire accounted for just 3 percent of the $970 million total cost. Additional costs included $138 million spent by Los Alamos right after the fire plus $203 million to replace damaged equipment. The federal government spent another $73 million in short-term rehabilitation measures to try to get trees growing again and prevent damaging mudslides and erosion.
Spark by Pia Wyer