2017 Whittier Fire
2017 Whittier Fire in California. Credit: Glenn Beltz

THIS FIRE SEASON has only amplified the need for Congress to pass a comprehensive wildfire suppression funding fix, so that the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Department of Interior (DOI) can not only bank on the funds needed to fight fires, but also implement forest restoration practices that help reduce the risks of these extreme fires.Congress allocates funding to the USFS and DOI in each appropriations cycle through the “rolling 10-year average” model. The costs of each year’s fire suppression efforts are calculated, and the average of the last 10 is then allocated. Averages usually mean that some years will be above average and some years will be below; however, that is no longer the case when it comes to the costs of fighting fires. The USFS and DOI have run short on fire-fighting funds 13 years since 2002. And, each year the 10-year average increases by hundreds of millions of dollars.

As federal budgets remain flat or decrease and the cost of suppression increases, the portion of money available to do the forest restoration, wildlife management, etc. decreases, including funding actions to help prevent fires and reduce the probability of intense fires — like hazardous fuels reduction. In 1995, fire management accounted for 16 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget. Today, it is more than half, and the agency predicts it will be two-thirds by 2021.

The 2017 fire season was one of the worst on record.

  • 52,000 individual fires burning more than 8.82 million acres in the southern
    United States, California, Oregon, Montana and more.
  • Approximately 2.3 million acres of national forests burned.
  • Fires ravaged northern California, destroying neighborhoods and displacing
    people. In fact, 100,000 Californians were displaced and insurance
    claims are climbing past $3.3 billion.

Not only do the rising costs of fire suppression eat up more and more of the Forest Service’s budget, when appropriated funds are not enough, the agency has to “borrow” funds from other program areas to cover the costs. In fiscal year 2017, the USFS spent more than $2.4 billion in firefighting costs. It had to transfer nearly $600 million from other accounts to cover the shortfall. Much of the Forest Service’s on-the-ground work is dictated by the seasons, meaning work that was ceased in the early spring because funds had to be transferred aren’t able to start up until late autumn.

There is a solution.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (H.R. 2862 and S. 1842) is a comprehensive fix that addresses the rising costs of firefighting, minimizes the need for “borrowing” funds and allows access to emergency funding to pay for firefighting beyond the amount allocated.

To send a letter to your Congressional members in support of a comprehensive fire funding fix, visit americanforests.org/TakeAction.

Rebecca Turner writes from Washington, D.C., and is American Forests’ chief strategy officer.