In 1995, the U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its budget battling wildfires. Last year, they spent half.  (Visual by U.S. Marine Corps/Flickr)

Wildfires Torch Forest Service Budget

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This week, The New York Times bemoaned the onset of yet another super-sized wildfire season. “Fires, once largely confined to a single season, have become a continual threat in some places, burning earlier and later in the year,” wrote The Times.

The culprit is climate change: Shorter, hotter springs coupled with drier winters leave a cover of ready-to ignite brush. In addition, as the Times points out, people are populating increasingly rural areas, leaving the U.S. Forest Service resource-strapped as it fights more intense fires with higher stakes and on larger swaths of land.

Turns out that these increased demands are putting a strain on the Forest Service’s finances. Last year the Forest Service’s budget was $1.7 billion, up from $161 million in 1985.  An outsize share of these funds now go to fire services. Last year fire encompassed more than 50 percent of the Forest Service’s annual budget; in 1995 it was just 16 percent.

Though the department was created to maintain, preserve, and restore the nation’s forests and grasslands, resources are increasingly directed at fires. As the Forest Service wrote in a budget report last year “[our] mission is being consumed by the ever-increasing costs of fighting fires.” “The agency is at a tipping point,” it added.

Comparing the budget allocations is especially dramatic:

They’ve even coined a term —“fire transfer”— for the reallocation of funds to fighting fires. With more funds going to fire services, the Forest Service reported, “fewer and fewer funds and resources are available to support other agency work — including the very programs and restoration projects that reduce the fire threat.”

Since 1995, the Forest Service has reduced funds for almost every service except fire fighting. This includes a 68 percent reduction in facilities improvements, and a 46 percent reduction in funds for maintenance of the public bridges and roads. And the problem is predicted to get worse. By 2025, the Forest Service predicts that suppressing fires will cost just under $1.8 billion, an amount that will encompass roughly 67 percent of the department’s projected budget.

The Forest Service has long suggested that instead of budgeting for wildfires as an annual expense, they should be considered ‘natural disasters’ like hurricanes and budgeted for separately. Others, like Arizona Senator John McCain, have proposed legislation to open public land to industry groups, like logging companies, for the kind of clearing that falls under the Forest Service’s purview.

At one point, the satirical newspaper The Onion joked that the Forest Service might kill off Smokey the Bear in order to bring real attention to forest fires.

Turns out, laying him off might be more realistic.

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