Forest Service: Cost of fighting wildfires will top $2 billion a year

Forest Service: Cost of fighting wildfires will top $2 billion a year
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Fighting wildfires could cost the U.S. government nearly $2 billion a year within the next decade, the Forest Service warns in a new report.

By 2025, the report says wildfire efforts could cost nearly $1.8 billion a year, which would eat up two-thirds of the Forest Service’s annual budgets.

That’s because Congress doesn’t treat wildfires as natural disasters whereby lawmakers can suddenly allocate emergency funding. Instead, the Forest Service has to rely on money Congress appropriates when it can't foresee future wildfires.

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If Congress doesn’t change the way the Forest Service is funded for wildfires, the agency will be forced to transfer $700 million over the next ten years from its other programs, the report said.

For the first time in the Forest Service’s 110-year history, it now spends more than half of its annual budget to fight wildfires. Last year alone, the 10 largest wildfires cost the government more than $320 million, the report said, and it's only expected to get worse.

"Climate change and other factors are causing the cost of fighting fires to rise every year," said Agriculture Secretary Tom VilsackThomas J. VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE, "but the way we fund our Forest Service hasn't changed in generations. Meanwhile, everything else suffers.”

Because the Forest Service can’t receive emergency funding for wildfires, it has to take away funding from programs that help prevent them from igniting like forest restoration and watershed and landscape management.

“Unfortunately, due to Congressional inaction and growing costs associated with fighting wildfires, the Forest Service is increasingly turning into a firefighting agency,” Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterGOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration Senate panel moves forward with bill to roll back Dodd-Frank GOP defeats Schumer bid to delay tax vote MORE (D-Montana) said in a statement on Thursday.

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Murkowski oversaw a 2016 funding bill for the Interior Department and EPA, which she said offered a partial solution. The full Senate has yet to vote on the bill.

“This proposal would end the disruptive and unsustainable practice of borrowing from, and later repaying money to, other government programs to deal with fire emergencies, while also providing up front the resources the agencies need to fight fires in all but the most extreme years,” she said.

Vilsack commended lawmakers in the House and Senate for also offering a bipartisan bill that he said is “an important step” in addressing the funding issue.

The legislation would treat wildfires like natural disasters and would partially replenish the ability to restore forests and prevent future fires.

"We must treat catastrophic wildfire not like a routine expense," said Vilsack, "but as the natural disasters they truly are.”

This story was updated at 3:04 p.m.