The U.S. Forest Service has nearly depleted its budget for fighting wildfires at the peak of wildfire season, a development which hasforced the agency to divert $600 million in funds from timber and other areas to continue fighting fires.
As of Wednesday, the agency was down to $50 million after spending $967 million this year on fighting wildfires. So far in 2013, 33,000 wildfires have burned in the Western U.S., spanning 5,300 square miles and destroying 960 homes and 30 commercial buildings.
This year is the second consecutive year and the sixth year since 2002 that the Forest Service has had to divert funds for fighting fires. The Forest Service’s wildfire fighting budget was slashed by $115 million by automatic, across-the-board sequester cuts that went into effect earlier this year. In addition, a wildfire reserve fund created in 2009, known as the FLAME Act has dropped from $413 million in 2010 to $299 million this year after sequestration. These cuts come as costs to fight wildfires each year are soaring: during the 1990s, the federal government spent less than $1 billion a year fighting wildfires, but since 2002, it’s spent a yearly average of more than $3 billion.
These cuts and the trend of the Forest Service’s depleting funds are made all the more troubling by warnings that wildfires will only become more intense and more frequent and as the climate warms — already, wildfire seasons last about two months longer than in previous decades.
Despite a tragic wildfire in Arizona, the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, and major fires in Alaska and Idaho, this wildfire season has been less severe than last year in terms of acres burned. So far, wildfires have burned through about 3.5 million acres in the U.S., compared to last year’s 7.1 million acres burned at the same point. But large, explosive fires like the one that killed 19 firefighters in central Arizona earlier this summer are already becoming more common, and as climate change brings higher temperatures, severe drought and expanded insect infestations in many parts of the U.S., conditions are becoming more and more conducive to wildfires.
Despite this year’s relatively small loss of acreage to fires, 51 large, uncontained active wildfires are still burning in the U.S. today — in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and an out-of-control fire in California that’s grown to 165 square miles and entered a remote area of Yosemite National Park on Friday. The blaze, known as the “Rim” wildfire, has prompted California Gov. Jerry Brown declare a state of emergency in Tuolumne County on Thursday, and has cost $5.4 million so far.