The federal government is bracing for the most expensive fire-fighting season in years, as a drought strikes California and many other parts of the West. The high fire-fighting costs will likely force the feds to cut back on efforts to prevent future fires yet again.
The federal agriculture and interior departments reported Thursday that they anticipate spending $470 million more than the $1.4 billion they have allocated this year for fighting fires.
“The high levels of wildfire this report predicts would force us to borrow funds from forest restoration, recreation and other areas,” said Robert Bonnie, an official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who oversees programs dealing with natural resources and the environment.
The federal government has had to shift funds from other programs to combat blazes — a practice called “fire borrowing” — in seven of the last 12 years. To deal with bigger and more widespread fires, the U.S. Forest Service in the last two decades has cut the number of foresters and other staff by more than 30 percent but doubled its number of firefighters.
Officials in local and state governments, particularly in the West, have long opposed fire borrowing.
“Moneys that are used in the fire borrowing take away from the actual treatments to get the lands healthy enough so we don’t have large, catastrophic, high-cost fires,” says Dan Shoun, a county commissioner in Lake County, Oregon, who worked on fire management for the U.S. Forest Service for 32 years.
This year’s drought will only compound the problem of forests that have not been cleared of dead trees or underbrush for years. “Fuel beds are deeper, more continuous, more ready to burn since any time since European settlement,” Shoun says.
Governors John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Brian Sandoval of Nevada asked Cabinet members and lawmakers earlier this spring to end fire borrowing.
The governors, writing on behalf of the Western Governors Association, blamed federal cutbacks for allowing damaging insects and diseases to flourish in overgrown forests. Federal inaction has also let cheatgrass — a highly flammable invasive weed — spread on rangelands, they said.
“The result of these challenges has been a significant increase in the average acreage burned, higher fire suppression costs, increased impacts on public health, catastrophic damage to the environment and more communities threatened by wildfires every year,” the governors wrote.
The governors supported proposals in Congress that would fund catastrophic firefighting costs using emergency funds, in much the same way the feds pay for disaster recovery for hurricanes and tornadoes.
Shoun, the Oregon county commissioner, says Congress needs to act, because states and localities do not have the resources to mitigate the fire hazards. Residents in the affected areas have “no real say in what happens,” even though many depend on public lands for their livelihood.
He also worries about the long-term consequences of allowing forests and rangeland to deteriorate. “These (lands) aren’t renewable resources in our lifetime,” he says. “These fires, no one’s ever seen before. No one’s ever experienced them.”