Wildfire epidemic leaves states searching for solutions, funds

Jim Malewitz / Stateline.org
Published Dec 14, 2012 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — To some people living in the drought-scorched American West, it may seem like the fires will never stop raging.

Months after forests and grasslands in much of the region usually cease smoldering for the year, smoke still wafts across parts of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. Hundreds of residents living nearby have returned to their homes, but firefighters have not fully contained the blaze, which they hope will be the last in Colorado’s worst fire season ever.

At one point this summer, 14 major fires were ripping through the state simultaneously. They included Colorado’s most devastating single fire in history, the 29-square-mile Waldo Canyon fire, which devoured 350 homes in just four hours.

Wildfires have scorched almost 9.2 million acres of U.S. land this year, the third largest one-year burn in the country’s recorded history. They’ve claimed lives, destroyed homes, killed animals and ravaged their habitats, spewing toxins that settle in water and on land. The fires have pushed government resources to their limits, and in some cases beyond them.

Ongoing budgetary struggles and the reality that the West is getting hotter and drier, stoking more frequent and destructive fires, are prompting fire officials to ponder ways to pack a better punch with fewer dollars.

“We’ve got to do more with less,” says Harris Sherman, undersecretary for natural resources and the environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The federal government has spent about $1.45 billion on fire suppression this year, according to the Department of Agriculture, far surpassing a budget of $950 million. Most of that money, however, has been spent reacting to fires, leaving fewer dollars for prevention efforts.

Of the 193 million acres of forest managed by the U.S. Forest Service, as many as 82 million need to be treated to lower the fire risk. But it can cost $2,000 per acre to remove the buildup of fire-fueling materials, such as felled logs, certain grasses and low-lying branches.

“They’re spending so much fighting fires that they don’t have the resources to prevent them,” Rod Nichols, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Forestry, told Stateline.

In Oregon, says Nichols, it’s not uncommon for out-of control fires that start on federal lands to jump onto private lands, meaning the state has to pitch in its scarce resources — using money the federal government does not reimburse.

Through mid-August, more than 1,000 fires in Utah had cost the state about $16 million — more than five times what the legislature had allocated, The Associated Press reported earlier this year. Washington state spent $19.8 million suppressing fires, far surpassing its $11.2 million budget.

In Idaho, where fire tore through 1.25 million acres of land this year, federal and state agencies combined to spend about $200 million. “This impacts any governor’s budget,” says Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter. “That’s less money that I have for social services. That’s less money I have for education.”

In Oregon, officials are trying to save on long-term costs by attacking small fires aggressively from the outset — with fire engines, bulldozers and hand crews, often supported by water-carrying helicopters and air tankers that drop fire retardant — in hopes of squelching the fires before they become more destructive and costly. Proposed legislation would bolster those initial resources.

“If we can allow even one fewer large fire, that frees up the potential to save millions of dollars,” Nichols says.

But as budget struggles continue in several states, more firefighting resources — even those meant to cut long-term costs — may not be an option.

Western governors have asked for more federal help, requesting that Congress fully restore the federal government’s “Flame Fund,” which was set up in 2009 to ensure the Forest Service had enough money to fight fires without tapping into funds for other programs. That account has run dry, following the 2011 debt standoff and subsequent budget cuts.

But with Congress still wrangling over how to avoid going over its self-made “fiscal cliff,” few if any officials are expecting it to deliver more help.

They can’t count on Mother Nature to deliver long-term relief, either. Hot, dry weather continues to grip much of the U.S., with the West bearing the brunt of it. As the climate continues to change, researchers expect those fire-stoking conditions to worsen.

“We are seeing the fire season today last two months longer,” says Sherman, the Department of Agriculture undersecretary.

A study led by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that rising temperatures will likely cause more fires across most of North America and Europe over the next 30 years.

“In the long run, we found what most fear — increasing fire activity across large parts of the planet,” said lead author Max Moritz, upon the study’s release in June. “But the speed and extent to which some of these changes may happen is surprising.”

What’s more, wildfires — at least in some part — are contributing to climate change.

In the western U.S., wildfires release as much as 1.3 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted from burning fossil fuels, according to a study from the U.S. Geological Survey, released last week. Those emissions are expected to increase by as much as 80 percent over the next four decades.