WASHINGTON – In the worst wildfire season on record, the U.S. Forest Service ran out of money to pay for firefighters, firetrucks and aircraft that dump retardant on monstrous flames.
So officials did about the only thing they could: take money from other forest-management programs. But many of the programs were aimed at preventing giant fires in the first place, and raiding their budgets meant putting off the removal of dried brush and dead wood over vast stretches of land – the things that fuel eye-popping blazes, threatening property and lives.
Recently, Congress stepped in and reimbursed the Forest Service and the Interior Department, which plays a far lesser role in fighting fires, with $400 million from the 2013 continuing resolution, allowing fire-prevention work to continue. Forestry experts at state agencies and environmental groups greeted it as good news.
But they also faulted Congress for providing at the start of the fiscal year only about half of the $1 billion it actually cost to fight this years fires. They argued that the traditional method that members of an appropriations conference committee use to finance wildfire suppression – averaging the cost of fighting wildfires over the previous 10 years – is inadequate at a time when climate change is causing longer periods of dryness and drought, giving fires more fuel to burn and resulting in longer wildfire seasons.
Once running from June to September, the season has expanded over the past 10 years to include May and October. It was once rare to see 5 million cumulative acres burn, agriculture officials said. But some recent seasons have recorded millions more than that.
This years wildfire burn was nearly 8 million acres at the end of August, about the time that the budget allocated to fight them ran dry.