More than half the Forest Service budget in 2015 went to fighting fires, and the percentage could climb much higher. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also says he’s “tired of fussing with Congress” over funding for restoration work that could prevent fires.
In 2015, a record 52 percent of the U.S. Forest Service budget went to fighting wildfires, up from just 16 percent two decades ago, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Legislation pending in Congress would ease the budget crunch by funding fires more like other natural disasters. Without congressional action, the percentage of the agency budget devoted to firefighting could rise as high as 67 percent in the years ahead, according to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“We will end up a fire department, not a Forest Service,” Vilsack said in an interview Monday with The Seattle Times.
The 2015 fire season, with more than 9 million acres burned, ranked as one of the five worst on record, according to Vilsack.
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Despite having to devote so much money to wildfires, the Forest Service over the past half-decade has still been able to increase the scope of thinning, prescribed burns and other forest-restoration work by 9 percent. Forest Service officials say those efforts can reduce the risk of runaway fires, and also provide firefighters better places to set up defense lines.
But Vilsack, whose department includes the Forest Service, says agency restoration efforts have failed to keep pace with fire risk, with some 65 million acres still in need of restoration. He is hoping Congress will pass new budget legislation before the next fire season to free up more money for restoration.
“Frankly, I had to hand out a number of flags to family members who lost loved ones in horrific forest fires this year, and I’m really tired of fussing with Congress on this,” Vilsack said.
Vilsack said his staff also has been talking with the Environmental Protection Agency to see if there is a way to make air-quality standards more flexible to accommodate prescribed burns that generate smoke pollution.
Also on Monday, fire chiefs from California, Idaho, Washington and other states met Monday in Washington for a roundtable the Obama administration used to talk about the role that climate change can have in intensifying the fire seasons.
The officials met for nearly four hours in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House, with Vice President Joe Biden popping in for about 15 minutes of mostly off-the-cuff comments.
During the past decade, every Western state has experienced a rise in the number of large wildfires, compared with the annual average between 1980 and 2000, a federal study released Monday shows. The average length of the fire season has also been increasing.
“Since official record-keeping began, the eight years with the largest area burned by wildfires in the United States have all occurred in the last 15 years,” the White House’s National Science and Technology Council’s report noted.
“Things are not going back to where they were 25 years ago,” Biden told the fire chiefs. “It’s not happening. You’re going to see more and more of what you deal with. It’s going to get worse. It’s not getting better.”