The Price of Climate Change: Wildfires Are Burning Through the National Forest Budget
Climate change is here. “We can see it, and we can feel it,” as President Obama said recently.
The U.S. Forest Service is feeling it especially lately. For the first time in its 110-year history, the agency is spending more of its budget on fighting wildfires than on all its other services combined.
In 1995, the Forest Service, part of the Department of Agriculture, allocated 16 percent of its budget for wildfire suppression.
This year, that cost is expected to triple, with $1.2 billion to be spent and dozens of wildfires still burning. In Alaska, a series of record-breaking 90-degree-Fahrenheit spring days helped trigger wildfires that have so far charred 5 million acres of the state. In California, 10,000 firefighters are battling 14 wildfires.
Since 2000, 10 states have endured their largest wildfire on record.
According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, fighting wildfires will take up two-thirds of Forest Service funding by 2025, or nearly $1.8 billion, as summer temperatures continue to rise owing to greenhouse gas emissions.
“Climate change and other factors are causing the cost of fighting fires to rise every year,” Vilsack said in a statement timed to the release of a new report on the Forest Service’s wildfire spending. “But the way we fund our Forest Service hasn’t changed in generations.”
Hotter days mean grasslands and trees dry out more quickly, leading to more-numerous and more-severe forest fires each year. Adding insult to injury, the loss of millions of acres of carbon-storing trees to fires intensifies climate change even more.
If the Forest Service’s budgeting process stays the same, Vilsack fears funding for projects that demonstrably reduce both wildfire and climate risks, such as forest restoration, will dry up.
“These factors are causing the cost of fighting fires to rise every year, and there is no end in sight,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.
Tidwell said the release of the Forest Service’s report is well timed, based on the “hectic pace” of wildfires in the country.
“We have been pointing out this challenge for the past few years, but we have not been able to effectively address it through our current budget process,” Tidwell said in a statement. “It is important to keep the focus on this problem, ensure the discussion continues and a solution to the funding problem be found.”
According to the Forest Service, wildfire season in the West is 78 days longer than in the 1970s, putting the 190 million acres of federal forests and grasslands at greater risk. Wildfires are also more routinely ending up closer to homes and towns as development expands into once-rural or wilderness areas.
The problem isn’t hitting the U.S. alone. According to a study published in July in the journal Nature, fire seasons lengthened on every continent other than Australia (and Antarctica, which was not a part of the study) between 1979 and 2013. Overall, fire seasons have grown by 19 percent, with areas of South America experiencing an extra month of fire vulnerability.
In the U.S., the Forest Service absorbs increased firefighting costs into its regular budget, which has remained relatively flat since 1995. If the trend continues, the Forest Service will have to move $700 million out of other programs to meet firefighting needs over the next 10 years.
“We must treat catastrophic wildfire not like a routine expense, but as the natural disasters they truly are,” said Vilsack. “It’s time to address the runaway growth of fire suppression at the cost of other critical programs.”