Federal appropriators are once again seeking to address the escalating costs of wildfire suppression on public lands. This year, wildfires have ravaged states in the west, Pacific Northwest, and Northern Rockies regions of the United States. By September, wildland fire suppression costs for the fiscal year had already exceeded $2 billion, making 2017 the most expensive year on record. Funding for fire suppression has significant budget implications for the U.S. Forest Service.
U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary, Sonny Perdue renewed his call for Congress to fix the way the agency’s fire suppression efforts are funded. “Forest Service spending on fire suppression in recent years has gone from 15 percent of the budget to 55 percent – or maybe even more – which means we have to keep borrowing from funds that are intended for forest management,” Perdue said. “We end up having to hoard all of the money that is intended for fire prevention, because we’re afraid we’re going to need it to actually fight fires. It means we can’t do the prescribed burning, harvesting, or insect control to prevent leaving a fuel load in the forest for future fires to feed on. That’s wrong, and that’s no way to manage the Forest Service.”
Large-scale fires are becoming more frequent and severe. Drought is a major driver of wildfires. Coupled with hotter summers, vegetation gets drier and becomes potential fuel for a forest fire. Drier vegetation ignites quicker and burns longer than green, healthy vegetation. Fires start easier and are harder to put out. The result is a longer and more destructive wildfire season.
These issues will remain hot in 2018. The search for a long-term budget solution continues, led by delegations from western, fire-prone states. Bi-partisan legislation seeks to address the funding issue. In June, Rep. Michael K. Simpson (R-Idaho) introduced H.R. 2862, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, in the House and in September, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) introduced S. 1842, the companion bill in the Senate. According to Simpson, “Currently, agencies like the Forest Service must borrow from non-fire accounts when fire suppression costs exceed the budget. ‘Fire borrowing’ was intended to be an extraordinary measure, but as fire seasons have grown more destructive it has become common practice—and has created a devastating cycle that prevents agencies from doing needed hazardous fuels removal or timber harvests, leading to worse fires.” The bills seek to replace routine budget raids with dedicated funding for wildfire suppression plus an emergency contingency fund for extraordinary events. This would fund forest fires like other natural disasters rather than through discretionary budgets.
Fires pose significant ecological threats to watersheds that lose shade trees and waterside buffers, open niches for invasive species, and add stress to vulnerable aquatic systems. Those examples highlight the opportunity for AFS to engage on fire issues, especially where those decisions affect water and aquatic resources.