With wildfires scorching vast swaths of the Western United States, it is time to renew calls for Congress to recognize the new normal and alter how it deals with such disasters.
A report issued last week for the first time detailed that more than half of the U.S. Forest Service budget is going toward wildfire suppression. In 1995, 16 percent of the budget went toward that cause; by 2025, Forest Service officials estimate, 67 percent of the agency’s budget will be devoted to wildfires. To further illustrate the issue, a New York Times study found that between 1991 and 1999, the federal government spent an average of $1.4 billion a year putting out fires; from 2002 to 2012, that cost had grown to $3.5 billion annually, and it is only increasing. As U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, whose agency is the umbrella organization for the Forest Service, noted, “We are at a tipping point.”
At issue is the fact that, by directing an increased portion of its budget toward fire suppression, the Forest Service diminishes a crucial part of its mission: fire prevention. Less money is available to thin forests and to provide other services that reduce the risk and intensity of fires. This creates a cycle of increasingly ferocious, and increasingly frequent, blazes.
The first course of action should be for Congress to approve the use of money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to deal with wildfires. Common sense dictates that fires should be treated as natural disasters similar to earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes, and that emergency funds should be part of the equation. As U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said: “We can’t sit idle and expect the budget issues around fire to fix themselves while people’s houses burn. The Forest Service report reinforces the arguments in favor of a comprehensive solution to address fire spending and our firefighting strategies.”
The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which is winding its way through Congress, would provide some relief in this regard. “How many more wildfires have to scorch our landscapes before Congress passes the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act?” asked U.S. Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif.
How many, indeed? While wildfires can be viewed as a necessary part of nature’s cycle, the fact is that they are a concern even when not threatening human life or man-made dwellings. Wildfires present a costly disaster for prudent forest management, for wildlife and for habitat. They also are harmful for watersheds that provide drinking water for much of the population, creating damage that can require years or even generations to mitigate.
The need for urgency on this issue is evident as fires expand in size. As a Forest Service report noted: “The six worst fire seasons since 1960 have all occurred since 2000. Moreover, since 2000, many Western states have experienced the largest wildfires in their state’s history.” Washingtonians can attest to that, with last year’s Carlton Complex of fires covering 350,000 acres in the north-central part of the state. Climate change is playing a role in the added devastation, with higher temperatures and lessened snowpack creating fire-friendly conditions, and a recent study by Nature Communications demonstrated that the season for “favorable fire weather” has lengthened.
Much of that is beyond the control of the Forest Service. But it is time for Congress to provide the tools necessary to best deal with the problem.