Cost To Fight Wildfire Will Skyrocket This Year, Thanks to Climate Change

By Terrell Johnson
Published: May 2, 2014

The federal government will be forced to cough up "hundreds of millions of dollars" more to fight wildfires in 2014 than it has budgeted so far, thanks to a wildfire season that is bringing bigger and more intense fires that begin much earlier in the year than they used to.

According to a Department of Agriculture report released today, the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior will spend about $470 million more than Congress has made available to fight wildfires this season – a projected $1.8 billion, versus the $1.4 billion the agencies have been allocated for firefighting this year.

To make up the difference, the agencies will have to rob Peter to pay Paul, so to speak – they'll have to reduce staff in other areas and take money that had been budgeted for projects like forest restoration, and instead spend it on firefighting.

"The forecast released today demonstrates the difficult budget position the Forest Service and Interior face in our efforts to fight catastrophic wildfire," said Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment, in a USDA news release.

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"While our agencies will spend the necessary resources to protect people, homes and our forests, the high levels of wildfire this report predicts would force us to borrow funds from forest restoration, recreation and other areas."

The USDA calls it "fire borrowing," here's how the agency says it works:

"[It] takes funding away from forest management activities such as mechanical thinning and controlled burns that reduce both the incidence and severity of wildfires. In addition to fire borrowing, over the last two decades, the Forest Service has also had to shift more and more money to firefighting, thereby reducing foresters and other staff by over 30 percent and more than doubling the number of firefighters."

Climate change – the effects we see and feel from the greenhouse-gas-fueled heating of Earth's climate over time – deserves a big part of the blame for the longer, more intense wildfire seasons we're experiencing today, said Rhea Suh, Assistant Secretary of Policy, Management and Budget at the Interior Dept.

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"With climate change contributing to longer and more intense wildfire seasons, the dangers and costs of fighting those fires increase substantially," she said in a news release, noting that over the past 30 years, the length of fire seasons nationwide has expanded by 60 to 80 days.

The size of the area that burns due to wildfires each year has more than doubled during the same period, to about 7 million acres annually today.

In February, President Obama proposed a new way to fund wildfire fighting, by creating a special disaster account from which the two agencies could draw when they've used up their firefighting funds for the year.

The proposal was included in Obama's annual budget to Congress in March, but it hasn't yet been enacted in law. Both agencies asked Congress to act on it at the release of today's report.

"The President's budget proposal, and similar bipartisan legislation before Congress, would solve this problem and allow the Forest Service to do more to restore our forests to make them more resistant to fire," said Bonnie.

Read the full story at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.

MORE: California Wildfires Burn Long Before Season Starts

Firefighters monitor the Colby fire burning for a second day on a hillside on Highway 39 in Azusa, California. (Jonathan Alcorn/Getty Images)

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