COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — As the West battles one catastrophic wildfire after another, the federal government is spending less and less on its main program for preventing blazes in the first place.
A combination of government austerity and the ballooning cost of battling the ruinous fires has taken a bite out of federal efforts to remove the dead trees and flammable underbrush that clog Western forests. The U.S. Forest Service says that next year it expects to treat 1 million fewer acres than it did last year.
In real, inflation-adjusted dollars, the government is spending less on the Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program, run jointly by the Forest Service and the Interior Department, than it did in 2002. And President Barack Obama has proposed a 31 percent cut for the fiscal year that begins in the fall.
“Because the fires have gotten bigger and bigger, we’ve spent more of our money on suppression and less on fuel removal,” Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said. “We’ve gotten behind the 8-ball on this.”
Federal firefighting officials say there is no question the program prevents some fires and makes others less dangerous to homeowners and firefighters alike. But they say they are caught in a bind.
“It’s a wicked public policy question,” said Tom Harbour, the Forest Service’s director of fire and aviation management. “We’ve got to make trade-offs. We’re living in a time of constrained budgets.”
Wildfires have grown in intensity and cost across the nation because of a combination of high temperatures, drought, an infestation of pine-killing beetles, and the rising number of people living close to nature. Since the 1990s, 15 million to 17 million new homes have been built in dangerous fire zones, according to a government report.
The Forest Service says it must clear flammable materials from at least 65 million acres to tamp down the danger. The federal government is the primary landlord in the western United States, with responsibility for maintaining much of the open lands that burn during fire season.
Eight of the nine worst fire seasons on record in the U.S., as measured in acres burned, have occurred since 2000, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
Last year, 9.3 million acres burned, with 51 separate fires of more than 40,000 acres each. Colorado suffered its most destructive season in history as a blaze on the edge of Colorado Springs destroyed 347 homes. That record stood for less than a year: Last week, a wildfire just outside Colorado Springs devastated at least 502 homes and killed two people.
Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia New Mexico, Texas and Utah also have seen fires in the past six years that set records for size or destructiveness.
Meanwhile, the Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program has seen funding go from $421 million in 2002 to $500 million last year. When those numbers are adjusted for inflation, it is actually a slight decrease. This year’s automatic budget cuts have reduced the funding even further to $419 million. The Obama administration is proposing to slash the total to $292 million next year.
That’s frustrated Western lawmakers, who pushed to include an extra $200 million to clear downed trees and other potential fire fuels in the version of the farm bill that passed the Senate earlier this year. But it’s unclear whether the provision will clear the House.
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee earlier this month that putting out fires is consuming an increasing share of his agency’s budget.
In 1991, fighting fires accounted for 13 percent of the Forest Service budget; last year it was 40 percent, Tidwell said. The number of staffers dedicated to firefighting has gone up 110 percent since 1998, while the rest of the staff has shrunk by 35 percent, he said. The agency’s overall budget, in inflation-adjusted dollars, is 10 percent lower than in 2001.
At the hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., blamed the Obama administration’s budget office for not believing in the value of fire prevention.
“This waltz has gone on long enough,” Wyden said.
The government has other programs that lower fire danger, including letting ranchers graze their livestock on grassland and routine forest maintenance. But even those have become victims of the growing cost of fighting fires.
During last year’s tough fire season, the Forest Service overspent its firefighting budget by $440 million. To close the gap, it borrowed from other accounts, including $40 million in brush clearance funds, according to Forest Service documents.
Congress eventually replenished those funds, but by then it was long after the work should have been completed, said Christopher Topik of the Nature Conservancy. He noted that a 2004 congressional report found that borrowing money disrupted critical fire prevention programs.
Last year, the Forest Service treated or restored 4.4 million acres, according to agency records. Next year that is projected to drop to 3.5 million. The number of acres treated for hazardous fuels is projected to fall from 1.8 million last year to 685,000 next year. Harbour said the agency is focusing on heavily populated areas, which are more expensive to treat.
A study for the Interior Department found it is more cost-effective to try to prevent fires than to just extinguish them once they erupt.
In a 2010 blaze in Arizona, for example, researchers found that the fire cost about $135 million. They calculated that every dollar spent on basic prevention, such as trimming dead branches and carting out downed trees, could have saved $10 in firefighting costs.
One of the study’s co-authors, Diane Vosick of Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute, likened the removal of old and easily ignitable trees — whether by prescribed burns or mechanical harvesting — to vaccinating people against a deadly disease.
“We know what to do and the investment up front is much easier than the aftermath, which the poor people of Colorado are dealing with right now,” Vosick said.
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