R6 Forester: Soaring fire costs limit funds for other work

Leadership Corner: Jim Peña; Regional Forester, USDA Forest Service - Pacific Northwest Region

By Jim Peña, Pacific Northwest Regional Forester  – 

Firefighters burn grass and brush along a dirt road to block oncoming fire

Firefighters conduct burnout operations to establish a fire line while fighting the 2017 Chetco Bar fire on Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest in Oregon. USDA Forest Service photo (via InciWeb)

The 2017 wildfire season was unprecedented in terms of dollars spent, acres burned, and the increased duration of wildfires. Even now, months later, we’re still feeling the impacts from these fires, especially financially.

As wildfires grow more severe – and costly – the USDA Forest Service is struggling to adequately fund projects that are important to our communities because of soaring firefighting costs.

Each year, firefighting costs consume more and more of the USDA Forest Service’s budget. In 1995, firefighting costs accounted for 15% of the USDA Forest Service budget. In 2017, it was 57%. At the rate things are going, firefighting will consume 67% of our budget by 2021. This means less money for other priority USDA Forest Service programs and services, including recreation, visitor services, and much-needed fire prevention work that reduces the risk of catastrophic wildfires in the first place.

The USDA Forest Service is the only federal agency that is required to fund its entire emergency management program through its regular appropriations. This includes wildfires that are truly natural disasters—lightning starts rapidly driven by wind that burn faster and more intensely than firefighters can control.

Two chinook helicopters fly over a field with water buckets dangling below each aircraft.

Chinook Helicopters from the Oregon Army National Guard use hanging buckets to collect water for aerial drops in support of fire fighting efforts on the Chetco Bar Fire in Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest September 13, 2017. U.S. Government Photo (via Inciweb)

In the Pacific Northwest, this funding model means that projects designed to actually decrease the severity of wildfire are being delayed, deferred maintenance is growing for recreation sites and critical infrastructure, and roads damaged from fire or storms are going un-repaired.

This means that trash goes un-emptied, toilets uncleaned, and we are forced to make hard decisions on whether we can safely keep roads and recreation sites open. These funding challenges directly impact our ability to provide excellent and safe visitor experiences.

The USDA Forest Service is dedicated to fostering the productive and sustainable use of your national forests and grasslands. If you can’t use and enjoy your public lands to the fullest, that’s a problem.

While the USDA Forest Service is working more closely with partners and volunteers to leverage resources and accomplish more than we could by ourselves, our current fiscal path is simply unsustainable.

The USDA Forest Service deeply appreciates the ongoing work of Congress to pass new legislation to reform the way wildfire suppression is funded. A commonsense approach would let us get back to the work we care about most – meeting the many different needs of the communities we serve, for the benefit of generations to come.


Source Information: Jim Peña is the Regional Forest for the USDA Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Region. He supervises operations and staff on all national forests and grassland in Washington State and Oregon.

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