The media frequently reports on wildfire-related events that are exciting, such as big flames, hundreds of burned homes, and thousands of evacuated residents. but an under-reported aspect of wildfire management is the effects of reductions in funding. Every time Congress passes and the President signs a bill that reduces funding for fire suppression, fuel management, and fire prevention, there are proportional effects that ripple throughout the federal land management agencies. It appears that the chickens have come home to roost as we have fewer federal wildland firefighters, fewer staffed engines, and an air tanker fleet that has been reduced from 44 in 2002 to the 9 exclusive use large air tankers that are currently working under contract.
As we lose the ability to aggressively attack new fires with overwhelming force, more fires become mega-expensive conflagrations that cost tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to attempt to put out. A relatively small upfront expense for ground and air resources arriving within the first 30 minutes can be very cost effective when the fire is put out and everyone one goes back to the fire station to prepare for the next one.
I don’t want to hear any more congressmen complain about the lack of federal resources, or show up in a constituent’s home to listen to them complain about how the federal government fights fire, without them also committing to fixing the funding problem. They control the purse strings.
Wildfire budgets cut by 15% since 2010
A reporter for The Guardian, Suzanne Goldenberg, wrote a very interesting article about the declining firefighting budgets. The Guardian, of course, is a UK-based newspaper. Sometimes we need a fresh perspective of something that has been right in front of us. We mentioned Ms. Goldenberg’s article on June 1, but this under-reported story bears repeating. Here is an excerpt:
…A strategic review in 2009 warned the government to step up its fire fighting capabilities to deal with an escalating rise in wildfires, covering up to 12m acres of terrain each year. “The current budget environment for federal and partner fire management is at best uncertain and difficult,” the review said.
It noted government agencies had already over-shot their budgets five years in a row, because of escalating wildfires.
But the economic downturn and a Congress dominated by Republicans who want to shrink the role of government make it extremely complicated to divert more funds to forest fighting.
Instead, funding for preventing and putting out wildfires has fallen by $512m, or about 15%, since 2010.
Campaigners say that leaves the federal government agencies responsible for preventing and putting out wildfires under-funded – especially given projections suggesting a rise in wildfires over the next 20 years.
They also worry the government agencies responsible for fire protection are putting capital projects on hold – such as updating its fleet of air tankers.