Federal government projects spending $1.8 billion on wildfires this year

Growing severity of wildfires drives rising costs

DENVER - The U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior are projected to spend $1.8 billion fighting wildfires this year -- about $470 million more than the agencies have budgeted for firefighting this season.

"The forecast released today demonstrates the difficult budget position the Forest Service and Interior face in our efforts to fight catastrophic wildfire," said Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service.

"While our agencies will spend the necessary resources to protect people, homes and our forests, the high levels of wildfire this report predicts would force us to borrow funds from forest restoration, recreation and other areas," Bonnie said Thursday. "The President's budget proposal, and similar bipartisan legislation before Congress, would solve this problem and allow the Forest Service to do more to restore our forests to make them more resistant to fire."

The new forecast is the highest in several years. "Drought conditions in the West, especially in California, combine with other factors to portend a dangerous fire season," the USDA said in a news release.

Last year, 34 wildland firefighters died in the line of duty as fire burned 4.1 million acres and destroyed more than 1,000 homes across the country. In June, 19 Arizona firefighters were killed while battling an out-of-control wildfire near Yarnell, Ariz.

If the fire season is as costly as the study predicts, the USDA said the Forest Service and the Interior Department will be forced to take funding out of other critical programs that increase the long-term resistance of National Forests and public lands to wildfire. Both departments have had to divert funds from other programs to fund firefighting efforts for 7 of the last 12 years.

Over the last three decades, fire season lengths have increased by 60-80 days and annual acreages burned have more than doubled to over 7 million acres annually, the agency said. In addition, growing housing development in forests has put more people and houses in harms way, also making firefighting efforts more expensive.

"Fire borrowing," as the practice is known, takes funding from forest management activities such thinning -- cutting and removing dead or diseased trees -- and controlled burns that help reduce the number and severity of wildfires, the USDA said.

As the severity of fire seasons has grown, the Forest Service said it has shifted more and more money to firefighting, reducing foresters and other staff by more than 30 percent and more than doubling the number of firefighters.

"In its 2015 budget proposal, the Obama Administration proposed a special disaster relief cap adjustment for use when costs of fighting fires exceed Forest Service and Department of the Interior budgets," the USDA said. The agency said the proposal tracks closely with legislation authored by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho, and Representatives Mike Simpson of Idaho and Kurt Schrader of Oregon.

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