For the first time in its 110-year history, the Forest Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is spending more than 50 percent of its budget to suppress the nation's wildfires. A new report released today by the Forest Service estimates that within a decade, the agency will spend more than two-thirds of its budget to battle ever-increasing fires, while mission-critical programs that can help prevent fires in the first place such as forest restoration and watershed and landscape management will continue to suffer. Meanwhile, the report notes, these catastrophic blazes are projected to burn twice as many acres by 2050.
As the costs of fighting wildfires grow each year with longer, hotter, more unpredictable fire seasons, the report details how the Forest Service has experienced significant shifts in staffing and resources. In effect, the Forest Service has nearly half a billion dollars less, in 2015 dollars, than it did in 1995 to handle non-fire related programs—the bulk of its programming. There has also been a 39 percent loss of non-fire personnel, from approximately 18,000 in 1998 to fewer than 11,000 in 2015, while the fire staff has more than doubled. Dedicated to its mission of protecting more than 190 million acres of federal forests and grasslands, as well as lives and personal property from the growing threats of catastrophic wildfire, the Forest Service in recent years has absorbed skyrocketing costs related to fire and relied increasingly on "fire transfer"—moving resources from non-fire accounts to cover firefighting costs.
"Climate change and other factors are causing the cost of fighting fires to rise every year," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, "but the way we fund our Forest Service hasn't changed in generations. Meanwhile, everything else suffers, 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 1 in 5 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."
Today, fire seasons are 78 days longer than in the 1970s. Since 2000, at least 10 states have had their largest fires on record. Increasing development near forest boundaries also drives up costs, as more than 46 million homes and more than 70,000 communities are at risk from wildfire in the United States.
"These factors are causing the cost of fighting fires to rise every year, and there is no end in sight," said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. The release of this report is very timely based on the current hectic pace of wildfires in this country. We have been pointing out this challenge for the past few years, but we have not been able to effectively address it through our current budget process. It is important to keep the focus on this problem, ensure the discussion continues and a solution to the funding problem be found."
By 2025, the cost of fire suppression is expected to grow to nearly $1.8 billion dollars, according to today's report, but the Forest Service would be expected to absorb those costs into its regular budget, which has remained relatively flat. And if these trends continue, the Forest Service will be forced to take an additional $700 million dollars over the next 10 years from all the other programs. No other natural disasters are funded this way.
When fire suppression costs more than Congress appropriates to the Forest Service in any given year, the agency is forced to transfer additional funds from already depleted programs, called "fire transfer."
Vilsack said the bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, already introduced in the House and Senate, is an important step forward in addressing the funding problems. The proposed legislation, which mirrors a similar proposal in President Obama's Fiscal Year 2016 Budget, would provide a fiscally responsible mechanism to treat wildfires more like other natural disasters, end "fire transfers" and partially replenish the ability to restore resilient forests and protect against future fire outbreaks.
"We must treat catastrophic wildfire not like a routine expense," said Vilsack, "but as the natural disasters they truly are. It's time to address the runaway growth of fire suppression at the cost of other critical programs."