When natural disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes strike, the feds have an emergency fund to tap. But when wildfires rage, the Department of Interior and the U.S. Forest Service have to raid other programs to finance firefighting.
That means money set aside to prevent fires is used to fight current ones, making long-term progress impossible.
This wheel-spinning is the target of a bipartisan effort by U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to allow emergency funds to be accessed for the most severe fires. President Obama has endorsed the reform, which must be approved by Congress.
In recent years, fire suppression budgets have been overwhelmed by the cost of firefighting. Because of changes in the climate, the annual wildfire season has gone from five months to seven.
The Carlton Complex fire in north-central Washington is the largest in state history, and has required an enormous response. About 2,500 firefighters are battling the blaze, which has spread over 400 square miles and torched about 300 homes, many in the unfortunate community of Pateros.
National Guard helicopters have dropped about 650,000 gallons of water thus far.
All of that costs a lot of money, and this is just one of about 20 significant fires burning across Washington and Oregon.
It didn’t used to be this bad.
Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group, reports that six of the nation’s worst wildfire years have occurred since 2000. More firefighters are dying trying to save people and their homes. The fires are bigger and burn longer. Some of the reasons, according to a Headwaters report, are:
“… Overgrazing that reduced grass cover and encouraged seedling growth; logging of the large pines that led to a less fire-tolerant understory; and aggressive fire suppression that eliminated the natural, low-intensity fires which reduced biomass levels. The other factor is changing climatic conditions – higher temperatures, widespread drought, earlier snowmelt and spring growth, and expanded insect and disease infestations.”
In short, we’ve messed with Mother Nature, and now we’re paying the price.
The Wyden-Crapo reforms would help because more money would be freed up for suppression. Longer term, the focus must move to prevention. “Firewise” practices that encourage the clearing of safe perimeters around rural homes are sensible but, if you build in the woods, there is only so much firefighters can do to help – and only so much we should ask of them – when fire perimeters stretch across miles of volatile fuels.
We shake our heads at people who insist on rebuilding in floodplains or along tornado alleys, but the same stigma hasn’t been attached to building a home in the forest. More of the costs for these risky decisions should be borne by the homeowners, not taxpayers.
The trends fueling Western wildfires won’t be easy to reverse, but our current strategy is simply burning through budgets. It’s time acknowledge the changing landscape and adapt to it.