Secretary’s Column: Skyrocketing fire costs
Over the past twenty years, a changing climate, population growth near forests and rangelands, and the buildup of brush and other fuels have dramatically increased the severity of wildfires and the damage that they cause to our natural lands and communities. Year after year, fire seasons grow longer and longer, destroying homes, threatening critical infrastructure and the watersheds that provide clean drinking water to millions of people. Between 1980 and 2011, the average annual number of fires on Federal land more than doubled, and the total area burned annually tripled. Even as fire seasons have grown, the way we pay to fight these fires remains unchanged – and fundamentally broken.
The Forest Service’s firefighting appropriation has rapidly increased as a proportion of the Forest Service’s overall budget, increasing from 16 percent in 1995 to 42 percent today. As the costs of wildfires have spiraled out of control, it has shrunk the budget of other Forest Service programs, taking millions of dollars from other critical forest health and land management priorities in order to pay for them. What’s more, often the programs we are forced to divert funds from are the very programs which help to mitigate the impact of wildfires.
Today, the Department of Agriculture is releasing the Fire Transfer Impact Trends report detailing in clear terms just what this broken practice has cost us over the past twenty years – and what it will continue to cost us in the future if we don’t tackle this problem now.
These spiraling fire costs have left the government unable to sufficiently invest in critical forest and rangeland priorities, including:
- restoration projects designed specifically to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire while restoring forests to be healthier and more resilient;
- public access and tourism on public forests that stimulates local economies;
- capital investments and maintenance to improve access and infrastructure on our Federal lands; and,
- research and development to continue to improve the science behind our forest restoration, conservation and fire prevention and firefighting decisions.
On top of the budget reductions outlined in the new report, the Forest Service’s non-fire program budgets are affected by “fire borrowing.” Funds spent on fire suppression have exceeded the allocated amount in all but four years since 2000. In these cases, the shortfall is covered through transferring, or “borrowing” additional funds from Forest Service programs that have already been cut over the last 20 years.
The Forest Service recently released a state-by-state report providing examples of how funding for local wildfire preparedness, forest restoration, and other activities in nearly every state across the country has been used to instead fight fires, due to shortfalls in wildfire suppression budgets.
Unless we act, the problem is going to keep getting worse.
The President has put forward a common-sense plan to address this problem, modeled on congressional proposals with broad bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. This proposed reform would change the way we fund the most catastrophic wildfires, treating them the same as other natural disasters. This approach would provide certainty in fighting wildfires and investing in other areas that promote healthier and more resilient forests. And it would do so in a fiscally responsible way that lives within the overall funding levels already authorized by Congress.
This is not merely a concern for future generations; it will hurt us right now, this year. If we see the kind of severe fire activity that we currently project, the Forest Service will soon run out of money and will be forced to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars from other programs in order to put out the fires. A fix is needed, and needed urgently. The current system is untenable, dangerous, and simply irresponsible. We urge Congress to act on this bipartisan proposal without delay.
Tom Vilsack is the Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture. Shaun Donovan is the Director of the Office of Management and Budget.