The West’s wildfire season is longer, hotter and closer to people than ever before. Amiee White Beazley finds the U.S. Forest Service is being asked to save more with less — and the worst is yet to come
In the hills near Westcliffe in southeastern Colorado, the sun shone bright, and the air was dry and warm. Twigs and leaves blew through Junkins Park, littering the trails and crunching underfoot. Then, a gust of wind in the middle of the night downed a powerline, sparking a wildfire that quickly grew.
Some 900 firefighters fought the blaze over nearly three weeks last October. Before it was over, the Junkins Fire had destroyed nine residences, 17 structures and more than 18,000 acres of public and private land in the Pike and San Isabel national forests. The wildfire occurred unusually late in season after most of the firefighter groups had disbanded, making it that much harder to fight and one of the most expensive in U.S. history.
There is no arguing the facts. Wildfires in the West and throughout the United States are on the rise. Climate change, making the weather hotter and drier, has led to longer fire seasons. Typically expected in the West from May to September, the season now lasts 78 days on average longer than in 1970. The frequency, size and severity of wildfires has increased, burning twice as many acres as three decades ago. Projections offer no end in sight. Scientists believe the acreage burned by catastrophic wildfire blazes may double again by midcentury.
Always on the frontlines of these fires, along with local agencies, is the U.S. Forest Service. Part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service manages 193 million acres of public land, and has a role in stewarding approximately 650 million forested acres, of which 100 million are urban forests where most Americans, like me, live. If they burn, the Forest Service plays a role in controlling and containing them.
“The Forest Service responds to all wildland fires,” says Lawrence Lujan, U.S. Forest Service Public Information Officer for the Rocky Mountain Region. “Response to wildland fires is coordinated across levels of government regardless of the jurisdiction of where the fire started.”
I live in Basalt, Colorado. Looking out of my living room windows, I am surrounded by sagebrush, conifers and aspen trees that haven’t seen fire in decades, making them perfect fire fuel. Whether it is lightning, careless humans or a powerline, eventually the lands that surround most mountain communities like mine will burn. In fact, there are more than 46 million homes and 70,000 communities at the urban-wildland interface that are at risk from wildfire in the U.S.
The Forest Service is prepared to defend people and property, but fighting ever increasing fires is burning through the agency’s financial resources. The Forest Service estimates that within a decade, it will spend more than two-thirds of its budget battling wildfire.
Its depleted budget has forced the Forest Service in recent years to absorb skyrocketing costs of fighting wildfires and rely increasingly on “fire transfer”—moving resources from non-fire accounts to cover firefighting costs.
Fire transfer, or fire borrowing, effects all other programs in the Forest Service’s programs. In recent years, in the Four Corners region alone, among the many gutted services included land acquisitions that were not funded, watershed and archeological projects were deferred, and wildlife management projected were indefinitely delayed. Perhaps most importantly, income generating logging contracts have been abandoned and controlled burns used to reduce existing hazardous fuel loads, have not taken place, increasing the chance for more and more wildland fires.
“Restoring resilient forests helps to protect against future fire outbreaks and is vital to minimizing long-term costs to lives, private and public properties, and to struggling rural economies,” said former Department of Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack. “Under the current budget structure (the Forest Service is) forced to abandon these critical restoration and capital improvement projects in order to suppress these few but extreme fires.”
By 2025, the cost of fire suppression is expected to grow to nearly $1.8 billion, and the Forest Service would be expected to absorb those costs into its regular budget, which has remained relatively flat. If these trends continue, the Forest Service will be forced to take an additional $700 million over the next 10 years from all its other programs.
No other natural disasters in the United States are funded this way.
Before he left office, Vilsack and others asked Congress to call and, therefore, fund wildfires as what they really are: natural disasters. Like a tornado or a hurricane, natural disasters are paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would provide a fiscally responsible mechanism to treat wildfires more like other natural disasters, end “fire transfers” and partially replenish the ability to restore forests and protect against future fire outbreaks. As of now that request has gone unfunded.
“We must treat catastrophic wildfire not like a routine expense,” Vilsack says, “but as the natural disasters they truly are. It’s time to address the runaway growth of fire suppression at the cost of other critical programs.”
With a new administration and a new Congress, any bill that was introduced to change the way firefighting is funded are currently dead in the water and must again be introduced. There is bipartisan support for a new bill from more than 260 entities who are a part of the Partner Caucus on Fire Suppression Funding Solutions, including environmental groups, the timber industry and the Western Governors’ Association.
In a letter, Republican Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho writes, “There is a 90 percent chance the Forest Service will run out of money to fight fires at a time when 58 million acres of national forests face a high or very high risk of severe wildfire. We have got to perform the management that will reduce catastrophic fires and make sure resources for that management, and to fight fires, are available.”
As the summer approaches, the heat intensifies and wildfire season looms, without an act of Congress, we all sit in the hot seat hoping this year it doesn’t burn.