Be Prepared for a Summer Spike in Wildfires, Congress Warned

WASHINGTON – The chief of the U.S. Forest Service is anticipating another surge in wildfire activity and is counting on “the brave men and women who serve on the front lines of protecting life and property during this year’s fire season.”

Appearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Thomas Tidwell said his agency is looking at above-normal wildland fire potential across the north central U.S. this spring with similar conditions threatening many parts of the west this summer.

The increased risk in those areas is following an increasingly troubling pattern. The U.S. and the rest of the world are experiencing heightened levels of wildfire activity. This nation has seen wildfires grow to sizes that, according to Tidwell, “were unimaginable just 20 or 30 years ago.”

“Many states, including Florida, Georgia, Texas, Colorado, California, Oregon, Arizona, New Mexico and Washington, experienced either the largest and/or the most destructive fire in their history within the last seven years,” Tidwell said. “Extreme wildfire threatens lives and the natural resources people need and value, such as clean, abundant water, clean air, fish and wildlife habitat, open space for recreation and other forest products and opportunities impacting the daily lives of many Americans.”

The ever-increasing activity will prove costly, Tidwell told the panel. The most recent forecast compiled by agency researchers indicates that there exists a 90 percent chance that this year’s fire suppression costs will run between $794 million and $1.657 billion for the Forest Service alone, with a median estimate of $1.225 billion.

That median is above the 10-year average “and would certainly force us to transfer funding from other vital land management programs to support suppression operations,” Tidwell said.

About 10,000 firefighters from the Forest Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and 3,200 Department of the Interior firefighters are available for the upcoming fire season.

The 2014 wildfire season proved substantial, Tidwell said. The U.S. experienced more than 60,000 wildfires that consumed more than 3.5 million acres. Six states, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Arizona, Idaho and California, experienced “significant fire activity,” meaning more than 40,000 acres were destroyed.

“These fires affected watersheds for millions of people,” he said. “Wildfire destroyed a total of 1,953 structures in 2014, including 1,038 residences. California accounted for the highest number of structures lost in one state in 2014 with over 300 dwellings destroyed.”

Dealing with the costs associated with wildfires has long been vexing. The Forest Service has been forced to shift money from its fire prevention accounts seven times since the 2002 fiscal year, meaning preventative measures like clearing vegetation-choked woodlands, which could prevent blazes from occurring in the first place, are left wanting.

Tidwell said large, catastrophic fires have increased in frequency, requiring significant financial resources.

“Over the last few decades wildfire suppression costs have increased as fire seasons have grown longer and the frequency, size and severity of wildfires has increased due to changing climatic conditions, drought, hazardous fuel buildups, insect and disease infestations, nonnative invasive species and other factors,” Tidwell told lawmakers. “These trends are expected to continue.”

Over the last 10 years, he said, the Forest Service has spent an inflation-adjusted average of $1.13 billion annually on suppression operations. Fire suppression now eats up more than 50 percent of the Forest Service’s budget.

President Obama’s 2016 budget proposal includes provisions to reform the funding system for wildfire suppression, patterned after pending legislation offered by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

The plan would treat catastrophic wildfires like other natural disasters. True emergency fire events represent about 1 percent of wildland fires but consume about 30 percent of the Department of Interior’s suppression costs. Those fires would be treated like similar natural disasters and funded through disaster programs.

Routine wildland firefighting costs, which make up about 70 percent of the cost of wildfire suppression, would continue to be funded through the normal appropriations process.

“The reforms contained in these proposals are necessary and vital to ensure the Forest Service and the DOI are able to continue to deliver the full scope of their missions,” Tidwell said.

Transferring funds to cover the cost of wildfire suppression, he said, is “disruptive and harmful to other critical Forest Service and DOI programs and services, including efforts to reduce wildfire risk through mechanical thinning, prescribed fires and other means.”

Even in years when the Forest Service does not transfer funds from other programs, Tidwell said, the uncertainty created by the possibility of “fire transfer” means key projects, including those that contribute to forest health and hazardous fuels reduction, are put on hold in anticipation of a high wildfire activity year.

Lawmakers on both sides of the partisan divide agreed that changes are needed in the funding system. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), whose state has been hard hit of late, noted that the Forest Service and the Department of Interior have spent a combined $24 billion “just fighting the large wildfires.”

“We need to ensure that federal agencies have the money necessary to protect our communities and we need to treat wildfires differently in our budget,” Cantwell said.

The current 2015 budget will require fund transfers but Tidwell said the agency “will be able to sustain comparable levels of firefighting assets as we have in previous years.”

“We are able to leverage Call-When-Needed (CWN) aviation and ground based assets as the situation requires,” he said. “We also coordinate with other federal, state and local partners to maximize the utility of the community of assets to ensure we are able to respond when levels of fire activity increase.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the committee chairwoman, noted, “If there is one thing we can agree on in this committee, it's that we have to stop the fire borrowing.”

“We need a paradigm shift from fire control at all costs to actual fire management,” Murkowski said. “So it’s my hope that we can implement a wildfire policy that responsibly funds wildfire suppression needs, ends the unsustainable practice of fire borrowing, helps fire-wise our community.”

“…But if we do, I think we create fire-resilient landscapes in which wildfires can occur without such devastating consequences for our lands, our communities and our budgets.”