Wildfires Are Burning Through Funds Meant to Prevent Them

Did you know that catastrophic wildfires are treated differently than other natural disasters?

Today's fire seasons are on average 78 days longer than in the 1970s and are only projected to grow hotter, more unpredictable, and more expensive in the coming years. For the first time, wildland fire programs are expected to exceed 50 percent of the USDA Forest Service's entire budget.

When megafires disperse and grow to be a national hazard, federal agencies are forced to reallocate funding from proactive land management programs that keep our forests healthy to reactive programs that eliminate fires that spread throughout our forests and communities. With such a program in place, the USDA Forest Service and the Department of the Interior are forced to pay for wildfires out of their own budget authorities due to the inability to access federal emergency funds for wildfire suppression.

When suppression funds are exceeded, budget shortfalls are covered by transferring funds from other Forest Service and Interior programs; programs that keep forests healthy and reduce the threat and cost of future wildfires.

In redirecting funds away from programs that improve the health and resiliency of forests, the current system exacerbates forest health decline and actually increases future fire risk and costs.

While wildfires are seen predominantly as a "western" issue, the impacts are national and the way we fight fires impacts each state's constituents. As wildfire suppression costs increase, all programs are at risk of funding reductions or elimination.

"Here's an analogy to medical care. The current fire funding system is akin to borrowing all costs allocated for preventative care to pay for treatment of illnesses once patients are already sick," said Jim Karels, Florida State Forester and President of the National Association of State Foresters. "The system simply makes no sense."

The system is broken; as forests burn, the flames consume more than the dry fuels in their path, they consume the resources Congress has allocated to managing forests nationwide.

The most destructive fires, which account for the top 1 to 2 percent of wildfires, constitute 30 percent of annual fire suppression costs.

If the proper funding system is implemented to treat fires the same as other natural disasters, the Forest Service and the Interior would be able to put as much budget and focus on preventing fires as they do eliminating them. This approach treats these large, expensive fires as natural disasters while allowing the Forest Service and Interior agencies to reinvest funding in forest and land management restoration activities that reduce the threat of future catastrophic fires.

The United States is continuing to experience highly variable fire seasons. To-date, wildfires have already burned more than 8.4 million acres. At this same time last year, only 2.7 million acres had burned. Since 2000, at least 10 states have had their largest fires on record.

Fire costs accounted for 16 percent of the Forest Service's total budget in FY 1995 and are projected to grow to 67 percent in FY 2025. The increasing fire costs and longer fire seasons have resulted in a reduction of agency personnel, thus minimizing the ability to deliver proper forest management and Forest Service State & Private programs for non-federal forests.

"Something's not right here. Why treat wildfires differently than the way we fund other natural disasters? The current funding mechanism robs Peter to pay Paul and results in a net loss for our communities and forests," said Brent Keith, policy counsel for the National Association of State Foresters.

It is time to rethink the way we fund wildfire suppression in the United States to avoid the need to transfer funds from other agency programs. As Congress reconvenes, we urge members to fix the broken system and provide aid to our forests by supporting a bipartisan solution to this burning problem.

Learn more at stateforesters.org/wildfire.