U.S. again runs out of money to fight fires as the West burns

The Washington Post, AP

For the second straight year, the federal government has run through its budget for fighting wildfires amid a gruelling, deadly season and will be forced to move $600 million from other funds, some of which help prevent fires.

This year’s depletion of the budget, expected Friday, reflects the new normal in firefighting, where parched seasons last at least two months longer than in previous decades, and wildfires burn bigger and hotter, according to the U.S. Forest Service and conservationists who track fires.

More than 31,900 fires have burned 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) in the United States this year, according to the Forest Service.

Compared with other fire seasons in the past decade, that is mild. Last year produced the second-worst season on record: 67,700 fires burned 9.3 million acres (3.8 million hectares), according to the National Interagency Fire Center. In 2006, nearly 96,300 fires burned 9.8 million acres (4 million hectares).

A total burn of 5 million acres (2 million hectares) was once a rarity in fire seasons that ran from June to September before 2001. But since that time, the season has expanded from May to October, as a changing climate brought longer stretches of dryness and drought, providing fires with more fuel to burn.

On Friday, a giant wildfire raging out of control spread into Yosemite National Park as authorities urged more evacuations in nearby communities as flames marched through the timbered slopes of the western Sierra Nevada.

The fire, which started a week ago, closed back-country hiking in the park, but was not threatening the popular Yosemite Valley region.

The fire had grown from 250 sq. km Wednesday to more than 518 Friday and was only 5 percent contained. Smoke blowing across the Sierra into Nevada forced officials in several counties to cancel outdoor school activities and issue health advisories. The fire has destroyed four homes so far and was threatening about 5,500 residences. California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for the city of San Francisco 250 km away because of the threat to the city’s utilities.

In an Aug. 16 letter to regional foresters, station directors and deputy chiefs, Forest Service Fire Chief Thomas Tidwell said this year’s depletion of funds was predicted “and we must now transfer funds from other accounts to make up the difference.”

Tidwell issued several directives, telling subordinates to immediately defer awarding contracts for everything except the removal of hazardous fuels and emergencies, travel only when absolutely necessary, and cut back on hiring and overtime pay.

Reducing Forest Service funding affects rural economies, where the agency pays contractors to remove trees and brush, and other operations such as logging.

“I recognize that this direction will have significant effects on the public, whom we serve, and on our many valuable partners,” Tidwell said, as well as on the agency’s ability to manage forests. “I regret that we have to take this action and fully understand that it only increases costs and reduces efficiency.”

As of Monday, the Forest Service spent $967 million to pay for firefighters and the equipment that supports them. That included more than $200 million in the congressional Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement supplemental account known as FLAME. That meant there was only $50 million left to control at least 50 fires burning hundreds of thousands of hectares in the West.

The Forest Service spends $100 million per week to manage fires when at Preparedness Level 5, its highest state of alert, which it reached Tuesday, a spokesman said. Now the service must borrow from other programs, some of which prevent fires, to put them out.

Conservationists are deeply worried over how the government has juggled funds in recent years to pay for firefighting.

“We need to get serious about investing in forest restoration efforts that reduce the risk and intensity of fires, and we need a sound disaster funding method that provides emergency responders with the resources they need to protect people, water and wildlife,” said Chris Topik, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Restoring America’s Forests program.

Over seven years starting in 2002, the Agriculture Department, which runs the Forest Service, was forced to transfer $2.2 billion from other accounts to fight wildfires when the budget came up short, according to records provided by the Forest Service. Congress at times reimbursed only a fraction of those funds.

This year’s budget sequester, forced by Congress, cut more than $115 million set aside for federal wildland fire programs, USDA and Interior officials said.

At a time when the nation faces abnormally dry conditions, particularly in the West, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell were forced to manage burns with 500 fewer firefighters and 50 fewer engines.

“I hope we can get through this fire season without any fatalities,” Vilsack said in May.

A little more than a month later, 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed fighting a blaze that suddenly engulfed them in the Arizona town of Yarnell. More than 100 homes were destroyed in that fire.