This year’s record-breaking number, size, and costs to fight wildland fires across the country is having a dramatic impact on the U.S. Forest Service non-firefighting programs.
The cost for the Forest Service to fight wildfires across the county this year has surpassed the all-time annual record - hitting $1.73 billion according to Jennifer Jones, USFS public affairs specialist and member of the National Interagency Fire Center.
“The $1.73 billion dollars (as of Sept. 28) exceeds the old record of $1.65 billion (adjusted for inflation) set in 2002,” Jones said. “By mid-September, we were forced to transfer $450 million from non-fire programs to cover the cost of of fire suppression because we have spent more than we received.”
USFS believes that large fires like the Rough Fire in eastern Fresno County should be funded similarly to other natural disasters like hurricanes, and not out of their regular annual operating budget.
Combined, the costs to fight more than 7,000 California wildland fires that blackened 790,000 acres of Forest Service and Cal Fire land has exceeded $850 million as of last week. And the fire season is far from over.
According to John Heil, spokesman for USFS’s Pacific Southwest Region, there has been 486,100 acres burned from 1,499 wildfires on U.S. Forest Service land in the state, at a cost of nearly $509 million to suppress. An additional 5,500 wildland fires have scorched 305,265 acres under the jurisdiction of Cal Fire with suppression costs exceeding $342 million, according to Cal Fire spokeswoman Karen Guillemin-Kanawyer.
Report shows fires have debilitating impact on USFS budget
A recent 16-page report by U.S. Department of Agriculture and Forest Service researchers documents the debilitating impact rising costs to fight catastrophic fires are having on other agency programs such as maintenance, roads, facilities, planning, and recreation.
According to the report, the excessive costs to suppress wildfires throughout the country is taking millions of dollars from the agency’s budget for non-fire programs, deeply eroding the original mission of the agency - to manage America’s 193-million acres of forest lands for the benefit of Americans.
According to Guillemin-Kanawyer, Cal Fire’s budget in not adversely affected by wildland fires like the Forest Service, because major fire incidents are funded through the state’s “E” emergency fund, not from the agency’s standard budget. If the “E” fund is ever depleted due to a large number of major fires, Cal Fire can make a formal request with a precise estimate of the need to the legislature for additional “E” funds.
A first for USFS budget
In 1995, fire made up 16% of the Forest Service’s annual budget - this year, for the first time, more than 50% of the Forest Service’s annual budget will be dedicated to wildfires. At this rate, that amounts to a nearly $700 million decrease in non-fire program funding in the next 10 years.
Funding for non-fire programs has not kept pace with the increased cost of fighting fires. The growth in fire suppression costs has steadily consumed an ever-increasing portion of the agency’s budget. Between last fiscal year and this year, for example, the suppression budget grew by $115 million.
As more and more of the agency’s resources are spent each year to provide the firefighters, aircraft, and other assets necessary to protect lives, property, and natural resources from wildfires, fewer and fewer funds and resources are available to support other agency work - including the very programs and restoration projects that reduce the fire threat.
Fires have also affected USFS personnel
The report states that along with this shift in resources, there has also been a corresponding shift in staff, with a 39% reduction in all non-fire personnel. Left unchecked, the share of the budget devoted to fire in 2025 could exceed 67%, equating to reductions of nearly $700 million from non-fire programs compared to today’s funding levels.
That means in 10 years, two out of every three dollars the Forest Service gets from Congress will be spent on fire programs.
The depletion of non-fire programs has real implications, not only for the Forest Service’s restoration work that would help prevent catastrophic fires, but also for the protection of watersheds and cultural resources, upkeep of programs and infrastructure that support thousands of recreation jobs and billions of dollars of economic growth in rural communities.
The report points out that fire seasons are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970, and the Forest Service scientists believe the acreage burned may double again by mid-century.
While the Forest Service and its firefighting partners are able to suppress or manage 98% of fires, catastrophic mega-fires burn through the agency’s resources. One to two percent of fires consume 30% or more of annual costs. Last year, the Forest Service’s 10 largest fires cost more than $320 million dollars.
In addition, more and more development is taking place near forests. Increasing densities of people and infrastructure in these areas makes management more complex and requires more firefighting assets to ensure an appropriate, safe, and effective response that protects lives and property.
The six worst fire seasons since 1960 have all occurred in the last 15 years. Moreover, since 2000, many western states have experienced the largest wildfires in their state’s history. The largest fire currently burning in California is the Rough Fire, a 141,599 acre wildfire that began July 31 in eastern Fresno County.
Impacts on USFS non-fire programs
Forest Service programs that are experiencing declines in budgets as a result of the shift of funds and personnel for firefighting include:
* Deferred Maintenance - 95% reduction: The Deferred Maintenance and Infrastructure Improvement program addresses serious public health and safety concerns associated with the agency’s backlog in maintenance needs. The near elimination of funding for this program has prevented the Forest Service from making a dent in this backlog and has forced the agency to shift more of the deferred maintenance work to other capital improvement programs, further reducing our ability to improve the long-term sustainability of our facilities, roads, and trails.
* Facilities - 68% reduction: The facilities program supports maintenance and capital improvement on approximately 21,600 recreation sites and 23,100 research and other administrative buildings. More than half of all administrative facilities need improvement, with approximately 41% in poor condition needing major repairs or renovation.
* Land Management Planning - 64% reduction: Reductions in Land Management Planning have had a significant impact on the Forest Service’s ability to reduce the backlog of forest plans requiring revision.
* Roads - 46% reduction: The National Forest road system provides access for recreational, resource management, and commercial purposes. As the transportation infrastructure ages or is damaged by natural events, some roads and bridges have become unsafe for public travel. The Forest Service has had to restrict traffic on or close those roads and bridges until funds are available for maintenance and repairs. Firefighting ability could also decline significantly as road access restrictions increase.
* Landownership Management - 33% reduction: This decrease has impaired the agency’s ability to respond to growing demands on special use permits program, which supports critical projects involving energy pipelines, geothermal, electric transmission, hydropower, and telecommunication infrastructure
* Vegetation & Watershed Management: 24% reduction: The Vegetation and Watershed Management Program is the cornerstone for forest, rangeland, soil and water restoration and enhancement activities on National Forest System (NFS) lands and plays a key role in post-fire restoration.
* Other reductions include Wildlife & Fisheries Habitat Management - 18% - Recreation, Heritage & Wilderness - 15%.
Unspent fire funds
With one of the worst fire season in recent history, a recent story in the Sacramento Bee said that more than $43 million collected by the state of California, from about 800,000 property owners in rural California for fire prevention, has gone unspent at the end of the last fiscal year. That includes about 17,000 property owners in Eastern Madera County who pay about $120 a year in fees.
The four-year highly criticized tax has raised more than $300 million through June, with about $260 million being spent on prevention activities, vegetation clearing, and defensible space inspection. About $22 million went to the California Franchise Tax Board to cover collection costs.
The whole issue is currently in the courts. Led by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the fees are being challenged as an illegal tax. If the suit is successful, refunding five years of tax funds to landowners who filed official protests to the tax bills will cost the state millions of dollars.
A bill currently in Congress would reduce environmental reviews to speed up tree-thinning projects meant to improve forest health while reducing wildfire risk.
A separate bill, the wildfire Disaster Funding Act, has been introduced to overhaul federal wildfire policy, increase funding for prevention and ensure large forest fires are treated and funded as natural disasters.