By Rachel Cleetus, Union of Concerned Scientists
We’re in peak fire season and, sadly, early predictions for a high-risk season are coming true. The National Interagency Fire Center’s predictions for August show continuing above normal fire risks for the western U.S. and Alaska. Today the Forest Service released a new report showing that firefighting costs now consume over 50 percent of their annual budget, and could get up to two thirds of their budget by 2025, up from 16 percent a decade ago. The good news is that there are multiple bipartisan efforts underway in Congress to deliver a fix for the budget woes outlined in the report. Now we just need to see strong legislation enacted.
Growing wildfire risks and costs
Hotter, drier conditions in the American West, combined with forest management practices and increasing development in and near wildfire-prone areas, are contributing to the growing costs of wildfires.
This year Alaska is on track to for one of its worst fire seasons and California, in its fourth year of drought, is also facing raging fires in an above-average fire season. Oregon and Washington, also experiencing drought, are at high risk and have at least ten large wildfires currently.
As the Forest Service report says: 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.
Last week David Ruhle, a firefighter from South Dakota, lost his life fighting a fire in California. No doubt, this season will bring more bad news of the impacts of these wildfires on people and their homes, on flood risks, on damage to watersheds and infrastructure, and the toll on the brave men and women who fight these wildfires.
The Forest Service at a tipping point
Fighting these large, dangerous fires is forcing the Forest Service to borrow money from other parts of its budget, a practice known as “fire borrowing” or “fire transfer,” and it comes at the expense of other priorities, including efforts to limit fire risks in future years by investing in proactive forest and fuels management. It’s also taking away from investments in watershed and ecosystem protection, and programs that enhance recreational opportunities for all Americans and support thousands of local jobs in nearby communities.
The agency now says it is at a tipping point. The costs of firefighting are projected to rise to nearly $1.8 billion annually by 2025. With climatic conditions contributing to longer, more severe fire seasons, and growing development in fire-prone areas, the budget burden and resultant fire transfers are simply unsustainable.
We have to start seeing the big picture here. Emergency response measures to fight fires will only get us so far; we’ve got to find ways to limit risks before the wildfires start. And that’s where Congress comes in.
Three things Congress should prioritize to address wildfire risks
There have been a number of bills introduced in the House and Senate to take steps to address some of the risks from wildfires, highlighting a real opportunity for bipartisan action. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act has support in both the Senate and the House, and accords well with a budget proposal from President Obama. Another opportunity comes from legislation that Senator Maria Cantwell previewed in June and outlined in a white paper.
Here are three things UCS will be looking for wildfire legislation to do:
- Address the growing problem of fire borrowing: The cost of putting out wildfires has exceeded $1 billion (in 2012 dollars) every year since 2000 forcing the Department of the Interior (DOI) and USDA to resort to fire borrowing. In nearly every state, this has affected funding for wildfire preparedness and forest restoration. We can reduce the harmful impacts of fire borrowing by changing the way federal fire suppression costs are funded. Funding for fighting large fires should come from a special disaster assistance fund that the USDA and DOI could access, similar to how FEMA deals with other natural disasters, and separate from the regular firefighting budgets of these agencies. Senator Wyden’s proposal provides one example of how this could be done and Senator Murkowski has suggested another alternative.
- Invest in efforts to protect and prepare communities.
- A national wildfire mapping service to help identify areas at high risk from wildfires. Sharing the tools and data with communities will help them be more aware of their risks so that they can take protective measures.
- Mandating disclosure of wildfire risks to homebuyers. Similar to lead paint disclosure requirements and flood risk disclosure requirements, accurate information about a home’s wildfire risk can help homebuyers protect themselves, make smart choices about how to invest their money, and prepare for known risks. This could also be linked to community education and planning efforts and wildfire risk mitigation grants or similar opportunities to help communities or homeowners invest in measures to lower their risks.
- Finding ways to limit risks to people and their homes in high-risk wildfire-prone areas through better planning, more information about wildfire risks and measures to limit them, and incentives for local communities to orient future development in places with lower fire risks.
- Ensure that firefighters have adequate resources to do their job well and safely. This includes training and access to the latest technology, such as GPS transmitters and communications technologies to help track teams and update them on potential dangers, as well as best practices to protect the health and safety of firefighters.
Looking for Congress to step up and deliver strong wildfire legislation
The bipartisan efforts underway provide an important opportunity to begin to address wildfire risks in a proactive way, instead of playing catch up and falling behind constantly. But previous attempts at passing similar legislation have foundered. With wildfires raging across the Western U.S. and Alaska, I hope Congress won’t delay further on delivering solutions to help protect and prepare communities from wildfire risks.
Deeps cuts in carbon emissions are also needed
This year’s fire season is part of a worsening long term trend whereby climate change is causing hotter, drier conditions and raising the risks of wildfires. Forest Service scientists project that “the acreage burned may double again by mid-century” above current levels which are already twice as high as three decades ago. A recent report from the EPA on the benefits of climate action shows how wildfire risks in the U.S. would increase by mid-century and the end of the century if we fail to make deep global cuts in emissions (see figure below).
Addressing the budget considerations raised in the Forest Service report is very important. Ultimately, we must also make deep cuts in our carbon emissions to help limit the pace and magnitude of climate risks, including from wildfires.