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The people behind Smokey Bear are ringing alarm bells about the rising cost of fighting forest fires in a hotter, drier climate.
This year's western wildfire season is burning through the budget of the US Forest Service (USFS), consuming more than half its 2015 funding and taking away money from other projects — including efforts to prevent new fires, the agency warned in a report issued this week. That share is expected to keep growing as fire seasons get longer in a changing climate, driving the agency to what it calls a "tipping point."
"Climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970," the USFS reported. "The US burns twice as many acres as three decades ago and Forest Service scientists believe the acreage burned may double again by mid-century. Increasing development in fire-prone areas also puts more stress on the Forest Service's suppression efforts."
Not only that, but climate change will make it harder to fight fires: There's likely to be more dried vegetation to fuel them and less water available for the crews battling them.
In 1995, firefighting costs made up about 16 percent of Forest Service's budget, the agency said. This year, it's expected to be 52 percent. And if current trends continue, it will be two-thirds by 2025, according to the Forest Service report. It cost more than $320 million just to fight last year's 10 biggest blazes, the agency reported.
"There's been an increase in catastrophic fires — the really costly ones that cause a lot of ecological damage," John Garder, the director of budget and appropriations for the National Parks Conservation Association, told VICE News. As a result, the USFS has had to divert money that was supposed to go to other projects. Congress is supposed to replace that money, but it hasn't been happening as regularly as it once did, he said.
"Those accounts are eventually repaid, but here are a lot of compromises that happen as a result," Garder said. Projects get delayed, deferred maintenance gets deferred again, and the service falls further behind.
"When the money's repaid, it's still a huge problem, because the programs that those accounts are intended to pay for are stalled for whatever period. It could be months and months," he said.
Right now, firefighters are trying to contain 35 major wildfires that have scorched nearly half a million acres in states from Texas to Alaska, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. More than 6 million acres have burned since January, well above the last decade's average of 4.1 million a year.
There are 14 major blazes in California alone, covering nearly 130,000 acres in a state already grappling with an epic four-year drought. And in Washington, the driest spring in more than a century contributed to a 2,300-acre fire in the temperate rain forest of Olympic National Park — a rare event in environment that normally sees more than 140 inches of rain a year.
The USFS bases its firefighting budget on the average annual amount spent over the past decade. But with the six worst fire seasons on record all having occurred since 2000, that's driven up their costs and squeezed out other needs, the agency reported.
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Meanwhile, woodland and water management in the 154 national forests has been cut 24 percent since 2001, the report states. Spending on forest roads has dropped by 46 percent, recreation down 15 percent, and wildlife and fisheries programs have been cut 18 percent.
The Forest Service is pushing Congress to set aside an emergency fund for wildfires, the same way it pays for tornado or hurricane costs. Language that would accomplish something like that has been added to the Senate appropriations bill that would fund the agency for 2016, but a stand-alone bill in the House of Representatives has been stalled in committee despite support from both sides of the aisle.
"Due to our rapidly changing climate and congressional inaction, the US Forest Service has become the world's largest fire department, preventing them from focusing on the health and diversity of our forests," Marni Salmon, a Washington representative of the Sierra Club, told VICE News. "Congress must recognize that fires are disasters—disasters that are getting worse with each passing year—and should be treated as such."
But with Congress looking unlikely to approve the full slate of spending bills by the time the new budget year starts in October, Garder said supporters are hoping that the Forest Service will get what it wants tacked onto a stopgap funding bill.
"There's broad, bipartisan agreement that it's a huge problem that has to be addressed," he said. The disagreement is just on how to address it."
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