Wildfires Eat Up Forest Service Budget, Hampering Prevention

Fire suppression and other firefighting expenses have increased from 16 percent of the Forest Service budget in 1995 to 42 percent in 2014.

by Peter Fimrite, San Francisco Chronicle / March 5, 2015
California Army and Air National Guard helicopter pilots aid in a fire response west of Yosemite National Park in August 2013. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Paul Wade)

(TNS) — The cost of fighting wildfires in California and in the western United States has skyrocketed, hampering efforts by the U.S. Forest Service to implement fire prevention and forest management programs, the country’s top natural resources official said Wednesday.

Fire suppression and other firefighting expenses have increased from 16 percent of the Forest Service budget in 1995 to 42 percent in 2014, according to Robert Bonnie, the undersecretary of natural resources and environment for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service.

“The general consensus is that this is a problem and we need to fix it,” Bonnie said Wednesday during a Chronicle editorial board meeting. He said money has been borrowed that was targeted for non-fire-related activities, like landscaping and fire prevention, to pay for fighting fires.

California, which is suffering from a fourth year of drought, is one of the major culprits. At one point last September, 12 major wildfires were burning in the state. Eleven of them were in Northern California. Nearly 6,000 firefighters were employed to beat back the flames.

In 2014, more than 6,000 fires broke out in California, at least 1,000 more than in an average year. Fires are generally handled by either the U.S. Forest Service or the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — or both agencies, depending on where they burn.

The Forest Service handled at least 1,300 of those wildfires, which burned close to 300,000 acres of Forest Service land, including more than 150 square miles in the Stanislaus National Forest.

The fire season across the United States was not as catastrophic as Forest Service officials feared, but experts expect the intensity and frequency of fires to increase over time as a result of drought and climate change.

“Last year we had an easier season than we thought, but the trend over time isn’t good and our climate scientists say it’s not going to get any better,” Bonnie said.

The solution, Bonnie said, is for the federal government to work collaboratively with state and local fire agencies, environmental organizations, and timber and forestry groups to develop fire prevention and forestry management programs that will ultimately improve the health of national forests.

Bonnie said the aftermath of the Rim Fire was a good example of how such collaborations work. The massive fire left dead timber spread over 257,000 acres in the Sierra, including portions of Yosemite National Park. The Forest Service submitted a plan to harvest dead trees on 29,648 acres of the Stanislaus National Forest in addition to “hazard trees” that were threatening to fall on public roads.

The plan, however, created an uproar among environmentalists, so Forest Service officials invited parties from all sides to help hash out a compromise. In the end, the Forest Service agreed to salvage 17,327 acres of burned wood in addition to the hazard trees, a positive jolt for the local economy.

Ultimately, more money will be needed to make such collaborations work because, Bonnie said, increased firefighting costs often use up all the money budgeted by the department. He praised recent legislation co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein that would allow the Forest Service to tap into Federal Emergency Management Administration funds to pay the cost of fighting fires.

“What you are seeing is a growing middle ground around forestry management,” he said. “This is the way the Forest Service is doing business now.”

©2015 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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