Our state is burning

Posted by Renee Magyar on September 8, 2015

And the money that might have been spent on fire prevention is being spent on suppression.

The Canyon Creek Complex fire burned close to homes in John Day. Photo by Amy Charette, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

Only a few hours east of the I-5 corridor, wildfires are devastating Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, and much of the Northwest and Alaska. Fires are threatening water quality, charring hiking trails, and worst of all, destroying homes and bringing disaster into the lives of our fellow Oregonians and Washingtonians. 53 structures have been lost so far to the Canyon Creek Complex just south of John Day in Grant County, and 318 structures have been lost to the Okanogan Complex Fire, the largest in Washington State history.

As of this week, more than 44,000 fires have burned nearly 9 million acres across 10 western states. This is a record number of acres burned by this time of year, with over 5 million of these acres burned in Alaska alone.

In August, 100 major fires were burning simultaneously across the West, stretching fire crew availability so thin that for the first time since 2006, the U.S. Forest Service brought in active-duty troops to help with firefighting efforts. The Bureau of Land Management also trained veteran military to assist with fire fighting in Alaska.

All of these numbers add up to huge expenses for taxpayers. But it’s a little known fact that in six of the last ten years, fire fighting has also burned up funding originally budgeted for forest management and restoration – forestry work that could prevent these same mega-fires in the future.

Unlike other natural disasters, the Forest Service foots the bill for wildfire suppression, making it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for the agency to conduct the very restoration work that will reduce future risk. The Forest Service budgeted a staggering $1.01 billion for fire suppression for the 2015 fiscal year, which ends on September 30. At the end of August, only $174 million remained; not enough to cover expenses through the year. As a result, the Forest Service has begun the process of transferring a large chunk of its forest management budget over for fire suppression, to the tune of up to $450 million; $250 million now, and an additional $200 million as needed.

In Oregon, the Forest Service is spending $10 million a day fighting wildfire, and across the country the agency is spending $150 million per week. Oregon Public Broadcasting reported on a recent visit from USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack who said this is “the first time in the history of the Forest Service that we're spending more on fire suppression than anything else.”  

And we can expect this trend to continue. According to a recent report by the Forest Service, “climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970. The U.S. burns twice as many acres as three decades ago and Forest Service scientists believe the acreage burned may double again by mid-century. The cost of fire suppression is predicted to increase to nearly $1.8 billion by 2025.”

“Fire borrowing” transfers have occurred 6 of the past 10 years, and Senator Ron Wyden and 10 other senators from western states are calling for a solution to the funding problem. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (SB 235) is one proposed solution that would limit the amount the Forest Service would have to spend on fires, and instead fund certain wildfires like other natural disasters. 

With increasing drought and other effects of climate change, the growing problem of larger fires burning greater number of acres across the West won't be solved overnight, but the first place to start is to keep restoration funding intact. It's high time that Congress gets the house in order and stops the vicious cycle of pulling funding from forest management and restoration that can help bring fire back in check. We’d like to express our thanks to the entire Oregon delegation for supporting the WDFA, and we encourage them to tell Congress it’s time to pass the bill and fix the fire borrowing problem.

Low snowfall in recent years compounds summer drought and increases the risk of mega-fires.
Low snowfall in 2014 and 2015 compounds summer drought and increases the risk of mega-fires.

How you can help

Call your representative and add your voice of support for the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. For anyone moved to offer direct support to relief efforts in Grant County, please call (541) 575-1900 or find more information on the Fairgrounds Relief Center Facebook page. And thank you.

Also see stunning photos of fire crews working on the Fork Complex fire near Hayfork, CA, and firefighting efforts across the West.