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Federal Government Consistently Runs out of Money to Fight Fires, Pays for It by Cutting Fire Prevention Programs


Wildfires by WA Department of Natural Resources

Here’s a story at the intersection of catastrophic climate change and austerity.

Because of the constant burning of carbon into the atmosphere and the resulting changes to the weather and climate, the US has experienced more and more wildfires over the past several years. In fact, this has been the worst wildfire season on record.

We have a fixed budget for federal wildfire interventions, and we now have run out of money to pay firefighters to battle new wildfires, or pay for the equipment needed. Every normal democracy would appropriate more funds to pay for the potential disasters down the road. But we’re in an age of austerity. So we steal from other parts of the Forest Service budget. Which will in turn INVITE MORE WILDFIRES.

So officials did about the only thing they could: take money from other forest management programs. But many of the programs were aimed at preventing giant fires in the first place, and raiding their budgets meant putting off the removal of dried brush and dead wood over vast stretches of land — the things that fuel eye-popping blazes, threatening property and lives.

Recently, Congress stepped in and reimbursed the Forest Service and the Interior Department, which plays a far lesser role in fighting fires, with $400 million from the 2013 Continuing Resolution, allowing fire prevention work to continue. Forestry experts at state agencies and environmental groups greeted it as good news.

But they also faulted Congress for providing at the start of the fiscal year only about half of the $1 billion dollars it actually cost to fight this year’s fires. They argued that the traditional method that members of an appropriations conference committee use to fund wildfire suppression — averaging the cost of fighting wildfires over the previous 10 years — is inadequate at a time when climate change is causing longer periods of dryness and drought, giving fires more fuel to burn and resulting in longer wildfire seasons.

The biggest problem here is not how we go about funding firefighting and fire prevention, it’s the factors that have increased the incidence of wildfires: constant fossil fuel burning for energy, which has heated the planet. When people talk about the costs of climate change, the strains on the wildfire budget is just one very prominent example.

But in a peculiar brand of denialism, Congress acts like the wildfire season resembles the past, when we’ve moved into a terrifying new future. Wildfire season now lasts close to six months, up from the previous four. Millions more acres burn than before. Yet Congress operates on auto-pilot. And this is not a new problem; the Forest Service has transferred money out of other budgets to cover firefighting fairly consistently since 2002.

Congress tried to deal with this by creating an emergency fund known as FLAME in 2010. And then, after two relatively mild fire seasons, they raided the budget in 2011. So there’s no discipline to save for future efforts, and meanwhile the amount needed for firefighting gets progressively larger. And with more and more effects of climate change spilling out, this only gets worse.

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David Dayen

David Dayen