Failure to prepare for wildfire season with adequate federal funding is akin to skipping a flu shot. The flu is unpleasant and sometimes dangerous, so why not stop by the pharmacy, pay $14.99, and significantly reduce the risk of catching the virus?
Much like the flu vaccine, cheap and effective programs can help mitigate the dangers and costs associated with wildfires. Unfortunately, the federal government has not invested enough into such programs as a result of a practice known as “fire borrowing.” As a result, forests across the United States are more prone to wildfire.
Wildfire suppression costs are drawn from the U.S. Forest Service budget, the same pool of money that is responsible for funding wildfire prevention and forest health programs. But as wildfires grow in frequency and severity, so does the cost of putting them out. Congress, however, has steadfastly refused to increase funding for the Forest Service, forcing the agency to “borrow” funds from fire prevention accounts and forest health programs to cover suppression costs.
That’s a lot like saying, “I can’t afford the flu vaccine because I spent so much money on NyQuil.”
Doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?
Healthy forests are far less susceptible to wildfires, but programs meant to reduce hazardous fuels buildup and treat unhealthy ecosystems are shortchanged by fire borrowing. Consequently, huge amounts of fire-prone materials are building up on national forests across the West.
Each year, wildfires are becoming more common and increasing in size and severity – and the costs of fighting them are also on the rise. In 1985, wildfire suppression cost about $240 million. In 2012, that number increased to $1.7 billion. While our warming climate, drought and increased development along fire-prone areas contribute to increased wildfire frequency and cost, a major factor is Congress’ refusal to adapt to the growing threat. By taking needed dollars from forestry management and fire prevention programs, appropriators are not investing enough in proven, and much less costly, wildfire “vaccines.”
But a sensible solution seems to be emerging at last. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (H.R.3992 in the House and S.1875 in the Senate) was introduced to Congress earlier this year. This bill would enable America’s most catastrophic wildfires to be classified as natural disasters, enabling severe wildfire suppression funds to be drawn from federal emergency accounts – and ending the practice of “fire borrowing” once and for all.
By making commonsense changes to the source of suppression funding, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would restore hundreds of millions of dollars to programs designed for wildfire prevention and forest health. This would result in fewer catastrophic wildfires, healthier forests and wildlife habitat, and it would save billions of federal dollars in the long term.