As two large wildfires burning in Northern California destroy over 1,000 homes, this year’s wildfire season looks set to be one of the worst on record in terms of both damage and costs. At the same time, funding inconsistencies when it comes to wildfire management may be making the problem worse. As the number and severity of wildfires grows, wildfire programs look as if they will exceed 50 percent of the Forest Service’s budget for the first time. This is a problem because forest fires are not included in federal emergency funds. When wildfires happen – as they do yearly in Western states such as California – the Forest Service and Department of the Interior have to use funds from their own budgets to pay for the cost of treating wildfires. This system sees long-term gains destroyed in favor of short-term fixes, as funds are reallocated from land management programs aimed at keeping the forest healthy.
Jim Karels, President of the National Association of State Foresters, says “The current fire funding system is akin to borrowing all costs allocated for preventative care to pay for treatment of illnesses once patients are already sick.” Currently, thirty percent of annual wildfire costs come from just 1 to 2 percent of wildfires. A paper in Science this week argues that fire should be used pre-emptively to thin forests and reduce fuels, a tactic known as “prescribed burns”. It is also important to focus on programs that manage the forests. Policy counsel for the National Association of State Foresters Brent Keith says “The current funding mechanism robs Peter to pay Paul and results in a net loss for our communities and forests.”
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