Equilibrium & Sustainability

States spend big as water levels fall, raising risks for catastrophic fires

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TWISP, Wash. — Governments across the Western United States are allocating unprecedented sums of money to prepare for what experts expect will be one of the worst wildfire seasons in memory, as low water levels and high temperatures conspire to create tinderbox conditions.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has proposed spending $2 billion on emergency preparedness.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) signed a measure allocating $125 million every biennium for the next two decades on fire relief and mitigation.

Oregon legislators are preparing to send a $220 million wildland protection measure to Gov. Kate Brown (D).

And in Arizona, site of some of the worst fires that have already exploded this year, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) approved a bill to spend $100 million.

The huge sums of money is a bow to the new reality of life in the American West: Fire season starts earlier every year as the climate warms and changes, and it never really stops.

“The primary motivation is the rapidly, exponentially increasing level of wildfire that has occurred over the last 10-15 years,” said Washington state Rep. Larry Springer (D), the lead sponsor of his state’s bill to spend more to mitigate the threat of wildfire. “It has people’s attention, and it is only going to get worse. Hoping for a wet summer is not a strategy.”

Across the West, a dryer than usual winter has contributed to a drought that is now stretching past its second decade. Water levels are perilously low, from Lake Mead to the Klamath River Basin along the Oregon-California border. In California, Lake Shasta is half full. Folsom Lake’s water levels are so low that boaters are limited to cruising at 5 miles per hour.

The U.S. Geological Service recorded the Methow River here, just a few miles from a U.S. Forest Service Smoke Jumper base, at a depth of just 1.6 feet on Monday, less than half the level at which it flowed on the same date a decade ago.

At the same time, record heat has melted snowpack throughout the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada Mountains earlier than usual. The extended drought has meant the water runoff seeps directly into the parched earth instead of making it to groundwater supplies that restock Western lakes and reservoirs. The conditions are so harsh that vegetation has dried out far earlier than usual.

“Everything here has cured six to eight weeks early. It’s getting into that very combustible state early,” said Ken Pimlott, the former chief of CalFire. “There’s no real end in sight. We’re not even in July and there’s this powder keg just waiting.”

The threat posed by wildfires has significantly expanded in recent years. Since 1960, the five worst years for wildfires have all come in the last 15 years — 2015, 2020, 2017, 2006 and 2007, according to the National Interagency Coordinating Center. Last year, 59,000 fires burned more than 10.1 million acres across the nation. Four of the seven largest wildfires in North American recorded history have taken place since 2014.

President Biden plans to convene a meeting of Western governors on Wednesday, the highest-level engagement the administration has shown on the looming threat. Biden received a briefing from the Federal Emergency Management Agency last week.

“He’s been quite focused over the last few months on ensuring we are not just preparing and working closely with governors who are in states that might be impacted by hurricanes, but doing the same with states and governors and leaders who might be impacted by wildfires,” press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday.

The Biden administration has proposed $2.1 billion in funding for wildland fire management in the Agriculture Department’s budget, up $170 million over last year. The Department of the Interior has requested $1.1 billion, up from $992 million in the last fiscal year.

Preparations for handling wildfires fall jointly on the patchwork of government entities that own Western lands. Across the United States, the federal government owns about 28 percent of all lands, but in Western states that share is far higher: Federal agencies own almost 85 percent of Nevada, more than 60 percent of Utah, Idaho and Alaska, and more than half of Oregon’s territory. In California, the federal government owns 45 million acres out of 100 million in total.

State officials and experts say they work well with tribal governments that own Western lands, but that cooperation with the federal government is sometimes lacking. Democrats expressed particular anger at the Trump administration for allegedly failing to take up its part in the fight.

“There needs to be a coordinated response. No one has done all that needs to be done. We’re operating under a huge fire deficit in the west,” said Alison Cullen, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Washington’s Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy and Governance. “Fire doesn’t care if it’s federal land, state land, tribal land. It’ll jump those boundaries quite happily.”

The state money will contribute to both fire suppression and mitigation budgets, from clearing the underbrush to financing new air fleets that can fight fires long before ground crews arrive. Washington plans to upgrade part of its aging fleet — two of its firefighting helicopters flew combat missions during the Vietnam War, Springer said.

And states are bolstering the crews they have available to fight fires on the ground. Washington will hire 30 more full-time fire fighters. California is adding more than 1,400 crew members. A draft of the infrastructure package under discussion in Congress includes a $600 million pay raise for federal fire fighters.

States are also planning new spending to increase resiliency for rural communities on the front lines of the threat. Some of the new spending will go toward creating new fire breaks around those towns, or, in the worst case, paying them to rebuild after devastating blazes. 

In Washington, the small community of Malden lost 80 percent of its structures during a Labor Day conflagration last year; in May, the Spur Fire destroyed more than 20 structures in Bagdad, Ariz. 

As the climate warms and changes, the threats to more cities and towns — and the costs for Western states — will only increase. Fire season is becoming a year-round phenomenon.

“It’s not just the intensity of the peak of the season,” Cullen said. “It’s also the length of a season that’s starting earlier and ending later.”

And the reach of massive fires is expanding, too, beyond the traditional hot spots in the arid eastern slopes of Western mountain ranges. Last year, a massive wildfire tore through Olympic National Park, home of the only rainforest in the continental United States.

“When our rainforest catches fire, that got people’s attention,” Springer said. “We’re not going to stop wildfires. Lightning happens. The question is can we mitigate the impact.”



Tags Arizona California Climate change Doug Ducey Gavin Newsom Jay Inslee Jen Psaki Joe Biden Kate Brown Oregon Washington Western wildfires

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