The U.S. Department of Agriculture today released information showing how limited federal firefighting budgets have impacted states over the last two fiscal years (FYs 2012 and 2013). The state-by-state report provides examples of how funding for local wildfire preparedness, forest restoration, and other activities in nearly every state across the country has been used to instead fight fires when wildfire suppression budgets did not fully cover firefighting costs.
The President's FY15 Budget proposed a new approach to addressing wildfire suppression costs, modeled after bipartisan legislation introduced in both houses of Congress. The new proposal would set aside an emergency fund, similar to emergency funds already available for other natural disasters, to cover costs for the most catastrophic of wildfires, avoiding the pattern in recent years of raiding other critical programs. This new approach provides certainty in addressing growing fire suppression needs while better safeguarding preparedness, maintenance and forest health programs from fund transfers that have diminished their effectiveness.
"With longer and more severe wildfire seasons, the current way that the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior budget for wildland fire is unsustainable," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "Until firefighting is treated like other natural disasters that can draw on emergency funding, firefighting expenditures will continue to disrupt forest restoration and management, research, and other activities that help manage our forests and reduce future catastrophic wildfire."
The wildfire season is 60-80 days longer and burning twice as many acres as compared to three decades ago. In the early 1990s, the Forest Service spent less than 15 percent of its budget on fire suppression. Today the agency spends 40 percent or more for fire suppression. Over the long term, this has meant the agency has shifted resources away from forest restoration and management, research, state and private forest assistance and other activities that help maintain our forests and reduce future catastrophic wildfire.
The Obama Administration's 2015 budget proposal creates a special disaster relief cap adjustment for use when costs of fighting the most extreme fires exceed Forest Service and Department of the Interior budgets, as is expected to happen again this year. A May report showed that the median projected cost of fighting fires is nearly $1.8 billion this year, more than $470 million over the Forest Service's and Interior's firefighting budgets. In fact, these costs could reach as high as $1 billion more than the agencies currently have budgeted.
When actual firefighting costs exceed firefighting budgets, the Forest Service has to engage in what's known as "fire transfer," where funding for fire suppression is transferred from non-fire programs, including forest management activities that treat areas impacted by insects and disease and reduce the incidence and severity of future wildfires.
The table below provides examples of impacts that limited funding had on forest management activities in nearly every state across the country in FY 2012 and FY2013. During those two years, the Forest Service had to transfer $440 million and $505 million respectively from other accounts to pay for fire suppression. Over the last 12 years, a total of $3.2 billion was shifted from other programs that accomplish important forest management objectives.
The information provides examples from each state and do not include all state impacts or region-wide or national level impacts of fire transfer. In addition, the table lists many activities that were "cancelled." These activities may have been funded in subsequent years, but the delay still has a considerable impact on Forest Service operations.
In a small number of states, Forest Service operations were not directly impacted by forest borrowing in 2012 or 2013, but there are still long term impacts of the Forest Service's fire budget challenge. Over the last several decades the Forest Service has had to frequently shift resources towards firefighting and away from other programs, impacting State forestry programs and outreach to private landowners.