Fighting Fires Burns Through Money That Keeps Them from Starting

Wildfires in the U.S. are becoming bigger, more destructive and more frequent. And the extra cost of putting them out comes straight from the budget for fire prevention.
by | January 2014
The Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs in 2012.
The Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs in 2012. Michael Rieger/FEMA
 

In 2012, the Waldo Canyon wildfire destroyed nearly 18,000 acres of land in El Paso County, Colo., making it, at the time, the most destructive fire in state history. Today Sallie Clark, the county commissioner who represents much of the area that burned, wonders whether the fire needed to be so severe. “If the forest had been mitigated,” she asks, “would it have been so out of control?”

Indeed, a growing number of voices at all levels of government are questioning whether the federal government’s approach to wildfire prevention is running as well as it could. At a recent Senate subcommittee hearing, Jim Hubbard, deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service, testified that in 2013, more than 4.1 million acres burned in the United States. On its face, that doesn’t mean much, but it’s part of a troubling trend: Wildfires in the U.S. are becoming bigger, more destructive and more frequent.

In the last six years, eight states experienced the most destructive fires in their histories, according to Hubbard, and today, wildfires burn twice as many acres annually as they did 40 years ago. The situation has created a vicious cycle for the feds. Because the Forest Service is spending so much money extinguishing fires, it is forced to take money from other areas, including those focused on fire prevention. The process, known as “fire borrowing,” is disruptive to the agency’s operations, especially since the diverted funding often isn’t restored. Critics say that’s indicative of a short-sighted approach to budgeting.

Ryan Yates, who works in federal affairs for the National Association of Counties (NACo), says the feds have also pulled back on “active management” of federal forest land, which includes using it for timber, cattle grazing and recreation, due to litigation and environmental rules. The result is more overgrown forests that act as fuel for fires.

Though the issue involves federal lands, it’s one that state and local leaders, especially those in the West, have taken a keen interest in. That’s because wildfires and the effects of wildfires often cross jurisdictional boundaries. In El Paso County, for example, the 2012 fi re was on federal land, but it displaced 340 families, impacted tourism and has led to more frequent flooding in the county.

Last year, the U.S. House passed H.R. 1526, which would allow for greater timber production on federal lands, ostensibly making the forest less dense and susceptible to fires, and would give counties a greater role in actively managing parts of the national forest land. The legislation has the backing of NACo, but it faces strong resistance from environmental groups. Meanwhile, Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet has introduced a bill that would establish a pilot program to make grants available to states for wildfire mitigation and preparedness. For now, local officials are waiting to see if Washington will develop a fi x before the next big fire impacts their communities. “The fire hasn’t happened yet,” Clark says, “but it will. It’s not a matter of if. It’s just when.

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