Wildfires burn 7 million acres every year in the U.S.
And besides ravaging federal, state, tribal and private lands, those fires — an average of more than 73,000 annually — destroy 2,600 structures each year, says the U.S. Forest Service.
Fighting these fires is draining the budgets of the very agencies that need to focus their resources on sustaining healthy forests and providing all the benefits of the nation’s public lands. This dynamic is not sustainable — and the Congress holds the keys to a solution.
Costs for fighting wildfires have increased significantly during the past two decades. Climate change has created more drought conditions, leading to bigger, stronger fires. And more people now live near fire-prone forests, increasing the need to extinguish wildfires that previously did not put people and communities directly at risk.
As these fire costs increase, they are using up more and more of the budgets of the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior. That means those federal agencies have less money to spend on conservation programs, including those that help reduce risks of catastrophic wildfires — such as restoring forests or removing brush and other materials that increase fire risks.
Congress must solve this problem by shifting how we pay for fighting fires. Like other natural disasters, the extent and scale of fires each year is not entirely predictable. Budgeting for an “average” fire season means agencies’ budgets fall short of what’s needed — and they resort to borrowing from recreation, investments in forest health and other programs. Instead, we need to treat extreme fires like other natural disasters by paying for them with special emergency funds.
Both chambers of Congress are currently considering legislation that would do just that. The House of Representatives earlier this summer introduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (WDFA). And the Senate last month added a similar fire-funding solution to a flood insurance bill.
My organization, The Nature Conservancy, has its roots in land and forest conservation. We support these congressional approaches. We’ve been collaborating with a broad, bipartisan coalition — ranging from sportsmen’s groups to environmental organizations — to garner support for the bills.
Wildfires are natural — and not inherently bad. When fires are part of a forest’s natural cycle, they can improve habitat for plants and animals. Indeed, in some forests, fires are even essential for reseeding. Fires also prevent grass and brush from building up and fueling large fires later.
But when wildfires become unnaturally intense, fueled by brush build-up and overly dense tree stands, they can destroy homes and communities, harm natural and cultural resources and threaten human lives. Fire damage to forests not only impacts wildlife habitat, but it also can hurt water quality by increasing erosion and causing sediment to enter rivers and lakes.
The wildfire funding solutions Congress is considering would fix the funding problem by changing the way the federal government budgets for fighting large wildfires.
I recently spoke about this issue at a Western Governors’ Association meeting, where I heard from state leaders how critical it is that Congress swiftly pass a fire funding solution that doesn’t “rob Peter to pay Paul” by using conservation and other program funds to pay for extreme fire disasters. Six Western states have experienced their most destructive wildfires in just the past six years. They need a solution to this challenge.
But even states that don’t experience catastrophic wildfires would benefit from fixing the way the government pays to fight fires. Conservation programs across the country lose funding when federal agencies are forced to cut back in order to funnel extra money into wildfire suppression.
Congress must correct this problem. Improving wildfire funding — which will help protect people and property — is a bipartisan issue that has support from communities around the country.
If you’d like to ask your member of Congress to support fire funding legislation, click here.
Lynn Scarlett is Co-Chief External Affairs Officer for The Nature Conservancy.