With the wildfire season winding down, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that as of September 14, the Forest Service has spent over $2 billion in wildfire suppression costs on 2.2 million acres of National Forest land and deployed over 27,000 individuals over the Western region to deal with wildfires -- breaking all previous records. Homes and lives have been lost and residents all over the region are complaining of ash, haze and lung-burning smoke. Unhealthy air alerts were issued many days in several Western states. In the last two decades, fire suppression has ballooned from approximately 15 percent of the Forest Service’s budget to more than 50 percent of the overall budget.
The reason is three-fold: forest fires have been suppressed for so long that forests are severely overstocked and fire-prone; climate change is causing hotter and drier conditions; more people living in the wildland-urban interface means more fires have to be suppressed. The result is overstocked forests that are literal tinderboxes.
While wildfire seasons have been overall worsening for the past decade, only stop-gap measures have been applied to address budgetary shortfalls. Despite Congress appropriating $1.6 billion to wildfire suppression funds this year – funding still fell short, causing ‘fire borrowing,’ which is the process of reallocating funding from other Forest Service programs for wildfire suppression. If nothing is done to address the budget situation, fire suppression activities could balloon to 70 percent of the Forest Service’s total budget by 2025.
The U.S. Forest Service, forestry, environmental and labor groups have been seeking a change for several years to the way wildfires are funded – treating the worst, costliest wildfires as disasters. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (H.R. 2862) would freeze the 10-year wildfire suppression fund and create a separate disaster cap to be accessed once wildfire suppression costs exceed the fund.
Perdue is now calling for Congress to address the funding issue, stating that the funding issue 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.” According to newly appointed Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke, “We are breaking records in terms of dollars spent, acres of National Forest land burned, and the increased duration of fires.” Hopefully, Congress can find a way forward – and soon.
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