For years, Western lawmakers have been trying to change the way we fight wildfires, or at least the way the government funds such work. Now, they may finally get that wish. Congress just passed a measure that would do just that, creating an emergency fund of $20 billion for the Forest Service to fight wildfires over the next decade. It's part of a sweeping new spending deal that the President signed on Friday.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has been pushing for years to make this change.
“Boy, I’ve been fighting for a fire funding fix since I became attorney general,” he says, and that was 10 years ago.
Bullock says the current system makes no sense.
When something like a hurricane or flood hits, response money comes from emergency management budgets. But when a disastrous wildfire hits, that money often comes straight from the Forest Service. In the last few years, the agency has had to cannibalize more and more of its budget to quell wildfires.
In 1995, the Forest Service spent 16 percent of its budget on fighting wildfires. In 2017, it spent about $2.4 billion fighting fires – about half of the service's total budget. (The Department of the Interior pitched in another $500 million.)
The current system is called “fire borrowing” because it requires the Forest Service to take money destined for other purposes.
The Forest Service has to take money away from activities like restoring trails, but also from things like clearing out underbrush or making sure power lines aren’t touching trees. As a result, activities that prevent future wildfires get delayed while the Forest Service requests more funding from Congress.
“It really always has been sort of robbing Peter to pay Paul,” says Bullock.
That’s why Western lawmakers have pushed for treating wildfires as a natural disaster. The new legislation would create an emergency fund expressly for the Forest Service to fight wildfires that would average $2 billion a year for the next decade.
To be clear, the current system of funding has allotted more money to the Forest Service over the years. John Rapp, acting director of the USDA Forest Service's budget team, says the budget has grown about $100 million a year, growth that's based on the average cost of fighting wildfires in the previous 10 years.
"But in terms of looking at an average over time, it hasn't actually kept pace with the longer, hotter, more intense wildland fire seasons that we've been experiencing," Rapp says, "So the actual cost of a fire within a given year has greatly outpaced the 10-year average."
In that context, lawmakers' new proposal sounds like a solution. But Michael Kodas, a journalist who just wrote a book about fighting wildfires, says not so fast.
“Definitely there's a very expensive job to be done, that really needs to be done,” says Kodas, whose book is called Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame. “But a lot of fire ecologists would also say a lot of money that was spent fighting fires that probably shouldn't have been fought, or should have been fought in a different way, and that a lot of this money is spent on firefighting that isn't as effective as people think it is.”
For example, he says, there’s increasing evidence that dropping flame retardants out of airplanes doesn’t actually accomplish very much.
“That's probably the most expensive part of our firefighting efforts,” he says.
And then there’s another thing. Yes, Kodas says, summers are getting hotter and drier. And yes, the fire season is getting longer. But a big reason why fires have become more disastrous is this: People have been building more and more houses right where they happen.
“My argument would be that most wildfires that get referred to as ‘natural disasters’ -- there's very little ‘natural’ about them,” he says. “More than a third of U.S. homes are now in what they call the ‘wildland-urban interface,’ where they risk being destroyed by wildfires.”
John Rapp with the Forest Service agrees that it isn't just environmental change driving expense.
"It's not just conditions in the national forests, it's also the encroachment of communities in the wildland-urban interface" says Rapp. "Those communities up against forest create a situation where it is a lot more costly to fight these fires."
Still, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock considers the proposed change a victory already. He says it’s one thing Western politicians on both sides of the aisle can agree on.
“Certainly, there’s things that separate us,” he says, but whether you live in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming or Colorado, “This is something that we can all agree on. And we all know that we need to get this done.”
As NPR has reported, President Trump threatened to veto the spending deal, but announced Friday that he has signed it.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.