With just two weeks to go until Memorial Day, wildfire season is already in full swing. This year, California already has seen more than 1,100 fires—double the average of the previous five years—and experts are forecasting above-normal wildfire potential across much of the West this summer.
The U.S. Global Change Research Program recently released the National Climate Assessment, a survey of the best available science about the effects of climate change in the United States. It predicts that over the next 50 years, the area burned by wildfires will double in the southern Rockies and increase by as much as 74 percent in California as wildfire seasons become longer and more damaging. In the West, climate change is resulting in drier and hotter weather, more intense and frequent droughts, and low snowpack that, taken together, are increasing the risks of wildfire.
Battling blazes and protecting communities is costly, and more wildfires mean higher costs. Yet the agencies tasked with fighting fires on public lands—the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service—have long grappled with major budget shortfalls.
From 1991 to 1999, the agencies spent an average of $1.4 billion per year on wildfires, according to a Headwaters Economics report. This figure has more than doubled between 2002 and 2012, with the agencies spending an average of $3.5 billion to fight wildfires. Just last week, a congressionally mandated report concluded that this year alone, the Forest Service and the Interior Department will spend upwards of $1.8 billion combating wildfires, though they have only $1.4 billion budgeted, resulting in an almost $470 million shortfall.
To address these ballooning costs and to ensure that wildfire suppression costs do not overwhelm agency budgets, President Barack Obama has proposed a plan to overhaul how the United States pays the costs of responding to the most catastrophic wildfires.
The plan, outlined in the president’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal and based on legislation introduced by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Reps. Mike Simpson (R-ID) and Kurt Schrader (D-OR), would treat the worst 1 percent of wildfires as a natural disaster similar to hurricanes or tornados. In turn, federal agencies would be able to draw funds from a special disaster account dedicated to combating extreme fires. This common-sense proposal will have far-reaching benefits for American communities, parks, and public lands. We highlight three of these benefits below.
1. The president’s plan frees up money for much-needed fire prevention and mitigation on public lands
In recent years, the worst 1 percent of wildfires have consumed 30 percent of total fire suppression budgets, and agencies have regularly had to divert resources from other priorities, including fire prevention, to pay these costs. Dan Glickman, former secretary of agriculture in the Clinton administration, raised significant concerns about this lack of funding to fight and get ahead of wildfires and the constant need for agencies to borrow money from other pockets to cover costs: “It’s like we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul almost always to fight fires, and it’s going to get worse, and we’d better figure out a way to have the resources to do that or else a lot of lives will be lost in the process.”
The president’s budget proposal would treat extreme wildfires—or “megafires”—as natural disasters, which are currently funded outside discretionary spending limits. This would free up critical funds needed to proactively fight fires. Indeed, estimates for removing megafires from the regular budget indicate that up to $412 million in funding could be made available.
Wildfires have become more violent and prevalent over the years due to climate change, among other factors; borrowing funds from other agency programs has become the norm. The Interior Department and the Forest Service have greatly exceeded their wildfire budgets in 7 out of the past 12 years, using funds budgeted for hazardous fuels reduction, wildfire prevention, and emergency stabilization to make up the difference. The agencies had to use $636 million from other programs last year to pay for wildfire suppression, and overall borrowing since 2002 exceeded $3 billion for the Forest Service and $422 million for the Interior Department.
2. The proposal protects America’s treasured national parks
With the creation of America’s first national park, Yellowstone, in 1872, the government established a new tradition of protecting lands in perpetuity to benefit future generations. These lands represent some of the greatest American treasures, are economic engines for local communities, and draw tourists from across the country and the world.
Wildfires naturally shape landscapes and are an important tool to maintain healthy ecosystems, provided they do not threaten public health and safety, cause economic damage, or create landslides or other ecological problems. Efforts to focus on fire suppression have led to the accumulation of wood and other fuels, contributing to increased wildfire risk. As a result, unnaturally large and catastrophic wildfires are threatening these pristine areas, and funding is needed to conduct critical fire management.
The devastating California Rim Fire that burned more than 77,000 acres of Yosemite National Park and put acres of towering redwoods and sequoias at risk is a prime example of why preventive fire management is needed for healthy national parks, forests, and public lands. Prescribed burns and mechanical treatments, such as thinning and removing excess vegetation, are important tools to restore and manage natural and cultural landscapes and to reduce hazardous fuels that contribute to wildfires. The Forest Service, Nature Conservancy, and Sierra Nevada Conservancy jointly concluded that proactive fire management of forests “can save two to three times what it costs to fight and clean up after fires, and shrink the size and intensity of fires up to 75 percent.” The president’s budget proposal would make funding available to the Forest Service and the Interior Department to take these proactive and important measures.
3. Increasing available funds for wildfire prevention and suppression will improve sage grouse habitat
The Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing the imperiled greater sage grouse—a bird known for its fascinating mating dance—under the Endangered Species Act, due in part to habitat degradation caused by wildfires. The sage grouse and other species, such as the mule deer, golden eagle, and pygmy rabbit, rely heavily on sagebrush for their habitat, but more frequent and intense wildfires are destroying sagebrush ecosystems at an alarming rate. Invasive grasses such as cheat grass are fueling fires in sagebrush country. In fact, wildfires are the principal cause of sage grouse habitat destruction and loss in the Great Basin: To date, they have destroyed 27 percent of the habitat in this area.
This issue is further complicated by the fact that Great Basin sagebrush ecosystems have not adapted to frequent fires as well as some habitats in California and the central Rockies. In response to a joint report authored by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Forest Service, David Pilliod, one of the authors, concluded that there is “a growing body of science demonstrating how difficult it is to rehabilitate sagebrush landscapes once native vegetation is lost through wildfire. … Restoration in the Great Basin is a huge challenge for land managers … because of the rate at which landscapes with sagebrush and other native vegetation are lost.”
Freeing up funding for fire prevention would help protect key sage grouse habitat by reducing the overall threat of wildfires. For example, large-scale fuels management treatments, such as thinning and removal of excess vegetation, can be used to fragment contiguous areas of highly flammable invasive vegetation and decrease the chance of large fires that threaten important sagebrush habitat.
The president’s common-sense proposal to reform the wildfire budget has garnered bipartisan support but still needs congressional approval. In light of the growing threat and severity of wildfires on public lands, Congress must act quickly to provide the Forest Service and Interior Department with needed funding before it is too late. By enacting the president’s plan, these agencies will no longer have to divert funds away from other important programs, ending the vicious cycle of robbing vital wildfire management and conservation programs to pay for wildfire suppression. The president’s proposal will free up dire funding needed for fire prevention on our public lands, national parks, and other pristine lands that cover threatened sage grouse habitat.
Nidhi Thakar is the Deputy Director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress.