Intense fires burn dry West and firefighting budgets

Andy Uhler Aug 6, 2015
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Intense fires burn dry West and firefighting budgets

Andy Uhler Aug 6, 2015
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It’s already been a long summer for wildfires in the dry West, and it’s not going to be over any time soon. The Rocky Fire north of San Francisco has burned more than 100 square miles and is still roaring. This week, the U.S. Forest Service released a report saying it’s spending more than half its budget on fighting fires. It’s asking Congress to classify wildfires as natural disasters to free more money for fighting them.

Twenty years ago, the Forest Service spent about 16 percent of its budget on fighting fires. This year, it’s spending more than half. “The trends aren’t getting better,” says Robert Bonnie, the undersecretary of natural resources and environment at the Department of Agriculture. “We’ve doubled the amount we’ve burned over the last 30 years from about three and a half million acres to seven.”

Bonnie says it’s likely due to a number of things – climate change and drought not least among them. But it’s the size of the fires that’s really eating up the budget. “One percent of fires cost about 30 percent of our overall firefighting budget,” he says. “So you get these huge megafires, and those types of fires cause an enormous amount of challenge to fight, but they’re also incredibly expensive.”

California’s not even in its peak fire season, which goes into September, and Gov. Jerry Brown has already declared a state of emergency in many counties.

Lynne Tolmachoff, spokeswoman for Cal Fire, says these fires are burning very dangerously. “It’s a very extreme and explosive type of a situation, and the firefighters are having to be very careful about the choices that they make,” she says.

The Rocky Fire is burning land so parched by years of drought that firefighters have had to change the way they’re fighting it. The fire breaks that they’re cutting today, for example, have to be much wider.

Richard Minnich, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, focusing on fire ecology, says fighting fires in an urban setting is one thing, “but if you’re in a wildland setting, you’re now in a matrix of fuel with solitary or scattered housing, which is much more vulnerable.”

Minnich thinks more than funding, it’s a planning problem. More and more homes are encroaching on the forests in California and other western states. And when those fires rage – people are forced to leave.

Rebuilding burned homes just aggravates the situation. “If houses keep recycling in fires, then what’s the point?” Minnich says. “Especially if it’s at the cost of the state.”

 Last year, California spent almost half a billion dollars fighting wildfires. This year’s rainy season – if it comes at all – won’t hit until November. 

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