Feds expect to break wildfire budget due to climate change

The Department of Interior and the U.S. Forest Service expect to spend $1.8 billion to fight wildfires this season, $470 million more than Congress provided, the agencies said Thursday, blaming climate change for the increased costs.

The agencies said climate change is causing longer and more intense wildfire seasons.

President Obama’s budget request and some proposed bills would alleviate the shortfall by giving them more flexibility to move funds, they said, urging lawmakers to act.

“While our agencies will spend the necessary resources to protect people, homes and our forests, the high levels of wildfire this report predicts would force us to borrow funds from forest restoration, recreation and other areas,” Robert Bonnie, the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) under secretary for natural resources and environment, said in a statement. The Forest Service is part of the USDA.

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The cost prediction is the highest since a 2009 law took effect requiring three wildfire forecasts each year, the USDA and Interior said. The extreme drought in California, as well as other factors, will make the fires particularly dangerous this year.

The USDA and Interior call the practice of moving funds into firefighting “fire borrowing.” But they warned that would take money away from thinning and controlled burns that could reduce future wildfires. Both agencies have used the borrowing in seven of the last 12 years.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said the wildfire report shows the need to reform the budget for firefighting. He and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) have sponsored a bill to treat large wildfires as natural disasters and to fund them from the same account as relief efforts like those after hurricanes.

“It is time to break the destructive cycle that underfunds fire prevention and shorts forest management and start treating the largest wildfires that rage across the West every year for what they are — natural disasters,” Wyden said in a statement.