The next federal spending bill should establish a new way to pay for fighting ever-more-severe wildfires as the cost of mobilizing fire trucks, helicopters, air tankers and hundreds of firefighters burns through more than half of the U.S. Forest Service budget, a top USDA official said Tuesday.
In a section of Medicine Bow National Forest between Cheyenne and Laramie in southeast Wyoming, federal and state forest officials have been working together to clear out built-up vegetation that could fuel a major wildfire. A combination of machinery and prescribed burns will do the work.
Such projects stand to lose funding at least temporarily whenever the Forest Service has to raid non-firefighting accounts to pay for firefighting needs, USDA Undersecretary Robert Bonnie said. "Congress typically pays us back. But we lose a season. We disrupt projects," he said.
Legislation to classify severe wildfires as natural disasters for funding purposes seeks to address the problem. The next federal spending bill, which must clear Congress by Dec. 11, should contain such a measure, Bonnie said.
Twenty years ago, firefighting accounted for about 16 percent of the Forest Service budget. Recent bad fire seasons have consumed more than half of the budget.
The recently ended fire season, with huge fires in Washington state and California, was among the worst on record. Sixty percent of the agency's spending went to firefighting, Bonnie said.
"We're burning more acres. We've got longer fire seasons. Our fires are more catastrophic. And we've got more development in the wildland-urban interface, which means fighting those fires is more expensive," he said. "The trends aren't good, and they're not going to get better over time."
Not all wildfires are bad — far from it. They can rejuvenate forests and open spaces, improving wildlife habitat and reducing the risk of severe fires down the road.
To avoid the sort of devastating, out-of-control fires that can threaten homes and businesses, the Forest Service thinned more than 4.6 million acres of forest lands in 2014. That was up 9 percent from 2011 but might not be matched this year, according to the Forest Service.
Cooperation between state and federal agencies and private landowners can help see through such projects on the vast scales needed to address problems such as the beetle infestations that have killed millions of acres of Western forests since the 1990s, Medicine Bow National Forest and Wyoming State Forestry Division officials said.
"We've always worked together. We're just trying to work together and forget about the fence for a minute. What's the right thing for the forest?" Wyoming State Forester Bill Crapser said.