Fire seasons have grown longer, hotter, and more unpredictable, but the U.S. Forest Service’s budget has not kept up. A report released Wednesday by the Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service’s parent agency, finds that more than half of the Forest Service budget now goes to suppress wildfire for the first time in its 110-year history. It calls on Congress to support the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which designates massive wildfires as natural disasters, instead of diverting funds from forestry work.
“[E]verything else suffers,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, “from the very restoration projects that have been proven to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires in the future, to watershed projects that protect drinking water for one in five Americans, to recreation projects that support thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of economic activity. The time has come for Congress to change the way it funds the Forest Service.”
In California, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency last Monday in the counties of Napa, San Bernardino, and San Diego, and nearly a thousand firefighters were added to the state’s fire lines daily last week. They were working across about 190,000 acres on 19 active fires, as of Thursday. Fourteen were consuming National Forest lands, with the 282-acre Chorro Fire in Ventura County’s Los Padres forest said to be 95 percent contained.
Of this year’s wildfire budget of $2.519 billion, the Forest Service planned to spend $708 million on suppression — preparedness, hazard reduction, and the FLAME Act, a wildfire suppression and management fund, make up the other parts of that budget. At the current rate of new fires, the suppression monies are expected to run out about two weeks short of the fiscal year end, said Mike Ferris, a Fire Service public information officer.
The Forest Service manages more than 193,000 acres, maintaining and restoring watersheds, and overseeing recreation, restoration, and planning for public forests and grasslands. That budget gets shifted to firefighting whenever multiple big blazes outstrip the fire budget. And the cost to fight wildfires is expected to grow to $1.8 billion, or to two-thirds of the Forest Service’s budget, by 2025; its fire staff has more than doubled since 1998. By 2050, the report states major wildfires could burn twice as many acres as in recent years.
Across the country, climate change has caused fire seasons to grow by 78 days since the 1970s, and at least 10 states have had their largest fires on record since 2000. Additionally, the fire agency’s work has become complicated by the 46 million homes built near or in the national forests, comprising roughly 70,000 communities.