Wildfires Draining|Forest Service Budget

     (CN) – With massive California wildfires exploding in size, the U.S. Forest Service said the growing cost of fighting wildfires is depleting its budget and imperiling funds for other environmental programs.
     A report issued by the Forest Service said that for the first time in its 110-year history, it’s spending more than half of its budget to fight the nation’s growing number of wildfires.
     The study revealed the Forest Service is contributing a majority of its resources toward firefighting and that other restoration programs are being neglected.
     U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called on Washington to increase the service’s dwindling budget.
     “Meanwhile, everything else suffers, from the very restoration projects that have been proven to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires in the future, to watershed projects that protect drinking water for one in five Americans, to recreation projects that support thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of economic activity,” Vilsack said in a statement. “The time has come for Congress to change the way it funds the Forest Service.”
     The Forest Service attributes rising costs to a longer fire season caused primarily by climate change and human development in fire-prone areas. Current fire seasons are 78 days longer than in 1970, and the number of acres burned annually has doubled since the 1980s.
     Scientists predict the fire season will continue to grow across the West because of the warming climate and mega-fires will become more prevalent. The Forest Service said it spent $320 million last year on the nation’s 10 largest fires and that the worst fire seasons have all occurred since 2000.
     As fire seasons have become longer and more intense, the Forest Service’s budget has not reflected the increase in costs to suppress the infernos over the last 20 years. In 1995, 16 percent of the agency’s budget was dedicated to fire suppression compared with 52 percent in 2015.
     Last week California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in response to the state’s 15 separate wildfires, calling the state a “tinderbox.” On Thursday, Brown toured the Rocky Fire, meeting with fire officials and media in Williams.
     Brown, who recently returned from a trip to Vatican City where he and Pope Francis urged the world to adopt stricter climate change initiatives, told reporters that Californians should prepare for more mega-fires and “fasten your seatbelts.”
     “I think this is really a real wake-up call because of the way this fire performed,” said Brown in a statement.
     More than 3,500 firefighters are battling the Rocky Fire which has charred 69,000 acres in Northern California. The inferno is the state’s largest blaze so far this year and has destroyed 43 homes and caused large-scale evacuations in Lake and Colusa counties.
     On Thursday the National Weather Service issued a fire-weather watch for much of Northern California, as high winds and thunderstorms moved into the area. While firefighters appreciate the cooling temperatures and increased humidity, they are wary of lightning strikes touching down and igniting additional fires.
     Over the last few weeks, Brown has lambasted Republican lawmakers for ignoring the climate-change issue. He sent a letter to the candidates participating in Thursday’s Republican debate, imploring them to discuss and acknowledge climate-change legislation.
     Brown told reporters the Rocky Fire and other wildfires are being fueled by climate change and that the next few months could bring even larger fires.
     “We have people acting like this is the end,” he said. “Unfortunately, we know historically that August and September are worse than July.”
     California’s historic drought has created bone-dry forests and valleys, increasing the likelihood and strength of forest fires. Heat and dryness are two of the most important factors in mega-fires and the Golden State is as dry as it’s ever been.
     Despite being relatively early in the fire season, acres are burning at a historic pace nationally. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, six million acres have already burned – five million acres in Alaska alone.
     The report said the Forest Service is at a “tipping point” and that longer and stronger fire seasons are an unfortunate reality.
     “We must treat catastrophic wildfire not like a routine expense, but as the natural disasters they truly are,” Vilsack said. “It’s time to address the runaway growth of fire suppression at the cost of other critical programs.”

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