Not only has the horrendous fire season burned thousands of acres, destroyed homes and taken lives, but the cost of fighting these disasters is devastating the U.S. Forest Service’s budget resources.
“We are expending in excess of $150 million per week on fire suppression activities,” said secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, on Sept 11. “And that will grow in the days and weeks ahead.”
The cost of wildfire suppression reached a record $243 million in a one-week period during the height of suppression activity in late August, according to the Forest Service.
On Aug. 25, Forest Service Director Tom Tidwell told his staff, “Currently, there remains approximately $174 million for fire suppression in fiscal year 2015. We anticipate the current extreme fire activity to continue through the end of the fiscal year and are projecting that the Forest Service will not have sufficient suppression funds.
“At this time, the only option for financing the fire suppression shortfall is to use the agency’s transfer authority. We must avoid incurring additional financial obligations wherever possible to cover projected suppression costs,” he added, “We have developed a transfer strategy for transferring up to $450 million involving two increments, the first for $250 million and the next for $200 million.”
In 2015, 52 percent of the Forest Service budget was for fire suppression, up from 16 percent in 1995. By September 2015, the Forest Service had already exceeded the funding set aside for fire suppression and has been forced to borrow funds meant for other Forest Service activities.
In a report, “The Rising Cost of Wildfire Operations: Effects on the Forest Service’s Non-Fire Work,” released in August, the Forest Service discussed how its programs are affected by the constantly increasing costs of wildland firefighting. “As more and more of the agency’s resources are spent each year to provide the firefighters, aircraft and other assets necessary to protect lives, property and natural resources from catastrophic wildfires, fewer and fewer funds and resources are available to support other agency work — including the very programs and restoration projects that reduce the fire threat.
“The depletion of non-fire programs to pay for the ever-increasing costs of fire has real implications … also for the protection of watersheds and cultural resources, upkeep of programs and infrastructure that support thousands of recreation jobs and billions of dollars of economic growth in rural communities, and support for the range of multiple uses, benefits and ecosystem services, as well as research, technical assistance and other programs that deliver value to the American public,” the report continued.
Meanwhile, Congress is working on legislation to change the manner in which wildfire funding is provided.