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A Record Amount of US Forest Went up in Flames Last Year

US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak says his department's job has become increasingly difficult due to climate change and a constrained budget environment in Washington DC.

by Matt Smith
Jan 7 2016, 6:09pm

Photo by Paul Buck/EPA

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Wildfires across the United States blackened more than 10 million acres of land in 2015, a new record set amid an intense drought across the West, the US Department of Agriculture reported this week.

Those blazes destroyed more than 4,500 buildings, and 13 firefighters died battling them, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. Government agencies burned more than $2.6 billion on firefighting costs, which consumed more than half of the US Forest Service's budget and forced the agency to shift money away from conservation and restoration projects aimed at preventing future fires, he said.

"We take our job to protect the public seriously, and recently, the job has become increasingly difficult due to the effects of climate change, chronic droughts, and a constrained budget environment in Washington," Vilsack said in a written statement.

Related: Here's Why Alaska's Wildfires Are Really Bad News for Everyone

Vilsack called on Congress to get behind a bill that will change how firefighting costs are budgeted and allow more money to be spent on restoration and prevention. Unlike when other natural disasters hit, federal law requires firefighting agencies to drain other accounts to pay for their efforts.

"When the Forest Service needs to spend more money fighting fires, defending people and property, they end up regularly biting into the budgets of other programs that do much-needed services," said Rolf Skar, the forest campaign director at Greenpeace USA. "It's sort of a cannibalistic thing that happens every July or August, once the bills really start racking up."

The 2015 tally of 10,125,149 acres burned tops a record set in 2006, when more than 9.9 million acres were scorched. About half of last year's acreage came from Alaska, where wildfires hit more than 5.1 million acres of woodland and tundra in that vast state.

"If you look at the West Coast, there were some notable fires and fires in notable areas," Skar said. "But that's not where the acreages really came from."

The Forest Service warned this was coming over the summer, noting that fire seasons now average 78 days longer than they did in 1970 due to climate change. There's more dried vegetation to fuel a fire, and less water available for the crews battling them. The result has been that firefighting costs grew from about 16 percent of the agency's budget in 1995 to 52 percent in 2015. 

Related: In Photos: This Year's Deadly California Wildfires Could Set Record For Most Damage

Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl