New report about rising costs of fighting wildfires

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Today the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a new report about the rising costs of fighting wildfires, and how robbing money from non-fire programs to pay for the fires has negative effects on the management of our national forests.


“New Report Shows Budget Impact of Rising Firefighting Costs

Other Forest Programs, Including Efforts to Help Prevent and Mitigate Fire Damage Have Shrunk;
Secretary Vilsack Renews Call to Better Protect Public Forests from Wildfire Threats

WASHINGTON, August 20, 2014—Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced a new report showing that as the cost of fighting forest fires has rapidly increased over the last 20 years, the budgets for other forest programs, including those that can help prevent and mitigate fire damage, have substantially shrunk. The Forest Service’s firefighting appropriation has rapidly risen as a proportion of the Forest Service’s overall budget, increasing from 16 percent in 1995 to 42 percent today, forcing cuts in other budget areas.

“Climate change, drought, fuel buildup and insects and disease are increasing the severity of catastrophic wildfire in America’s forests,” Vilsack said. “In order to protect the public, the portion of the Forest Service budget dedicated to combatting fire has drastically increased from what it was 20 years ago. This has led to substantial cuts in other areas of the Forest Service budget, including efforts to keep forests healthy, reduce fire risk, and strengthen local economies.”

Vilsack noted that on top of the budget reductions outlined in the new report, the Forest Service’s non-fire program budgets are affected by “fire borrowing.” Funds spent on fire suppression have exceeded the allocated amount in all but four years since 2000. In these cases, the shortfall is covered through transferring, or “borrowing” additional funds from Forest Service programs that have already been cut over the last 20 years. Secretary Vilsack renewed his request to Congress to allow an existing disaster fund to provide resources to fight catastrophic fires in years when Forest Service and Department of Interior fire costs exceed the amount Congress has budgeted, rather than forcing borrowing from non-fire programs.

“Bipartisan proposals to fund catastrophic fire like other natural disasters could help ensure that efforts to make forests more healthy and resilient and support local tourism economies aren’t impacted as significantly as they have been in recent years,” Vilsack said. “These proposals don’t increase the deficit, they just budget smarter by allowing existing natural disaster funding to be used in cases of catastrophic wildfire.”

Today’s report shows the extent to which many Forest Service program budgets have been cut even before borrowing occurs to accommodate for the rapid rise in firefighting costs in the past 20 years. For example:

  • Funding for the Vegetation and Watershed Management Program – a cornerstone for forest, rangeland, soil and water restoration and enhancement activities, and a key factor in post-fire restoration – has been cut by 22 percent since 2001. This has reduced the Forest Service’s ability to prevent and limit the spread of invasive species, which can weaken forest health and make forests more susceptible to fire.
  • Maintenance and capital improvements on approximately 21,600 recreation sites and 23,100 research and other administrative buildings has been reduced by two-thirds since 2001.
  • Support for recreation, heritage and wilderness activities that connect the public with our natural lands and support tourism and thousands of jobs (visitors to national forests contributed more than $13 billion to America’s economy each year) has been cut by 13 percent.
  • Wildlife and fisheries habitat management has been reduced by 17 percent, limiting recovery efforts for threatened and endangered species.
  • Research funding has declined by over $36 million in the ten year period ending in 2013.

While fire staffing has increased 110 percent since 1998, staffing for those dedicated to managing National Forest Service lands has decreased 35 percent over the same period.

Vilsack said the average number of fires on Federal lands has more than doubled since 1980 and the total area burned annually has tripled. He said that climate change, population growth near forests, brush and fuel buildup have drastically increased wildfire severity and the cost of fighting them.

Vilsack’s request to change the way catastrophic fire costs are funded is included in the Obama Administration’s proposed budget and is supported by a bipartisan group of lawmakers. The change means that in years when the cost of fighting wildfires exceeds the firefighting budget provided to the Forest Service by Congress, additional resources would be provided from an existing fund already in place to help provide emergency funding for natural disasters, rather than forcing the Forest Service to take money from other programs designed to protect forest health.

To read the full report, go to: “

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

One thought on “New report about rising costs of fighting wildfires”

  1. Shows years and years of not taking care of infrastructure, thinking the fire program was going to get cheaper, and then informing the public how bad the the suppression vs non suppression and fire vs non fire world is / was…..

    Love to feel sorry about how robbing one fund to pay another is somehow the general publics fault……

    In cases, it is pressures on facilities, campsites, people moving into the woods and WUI ……we get it!

    Problem is…..the LMA leadership and the 535 in the Beltway do not see eye to eye, nor does the LMA seem to have the political wherewithal to continue missions without closing up some shops.

    The military after 14 years in the Stans and the Iraqi sandbox are suffering the very same thing….downsizing, closing of bases, hell the BRAC Commission from almost 30 yrs ago probably still is not done shutting down bases..

    Yeah, we get it. You need more money to do all the missions Congress dictated from laws on past. Now comes paying the piper……..closing up programs and facilities…..LMA’s never really had a BRAC Commission hanging over their heads…..maybe the did and I am not informed…

    Seems to me, the Leadership at all levels of the LMA’s have not been politically astute enough over the years to make their fiscal cases for both fire and non fire programs. They would like you to believe how busy they have been……or really, have they been?

    Thinking this stuff in fire is going to get cheaper with automation and UAV’s, like portrayed years ago when I was a punk GS4 and folks were telling me how good the future was going to get with the computer……..looks like alllllllll those computer systems that still do not ” communicate” with each other sure have saved us MILLLIONS…..if those costs ever got recovered….bet there would be enough dinero to run a small program…… fuels reduction

    Priorities are not the LMA strong suit these days……you want? Like everyone else… pay!


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