The Rising Cost of Fire Operations

A news release last week from the USDA, “New Report Shows Budget Impact of Rising Firefighting Costs” covered Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s announcement of a new report from the Forest Service’s issue of shrunken budgets over the last 20 years.

“Climate change, drought, fuel buildup and insects and disease are increasing the severity of catastrophic wildfire in America’s forests,” Vilsack said. “In order to protect the public, the portion of the Forest Service budget dedicated to combatting fire has drastically increased from what it was 20 years ago. This has led to substantial cuts in other areas of the Forest Service budget, including efforts to keep forests healthy, reduce fire risk, and strengthen local economies.”

The Forest Service report, “The Rising Cost of Fire Operations: Effects on the Forest Service’s Non-Fire Work” explains that since 1980, the average number of fires on Federal lands has more than doubled and the total area burned annually has tripled. With such an increase in fires, expenses have grown dramatically affecting not only firefighting expenditures but all other fire related expenses as well. Some of the other fire related expenses described in the report are, ” hazardous fuels management, fire research, joint fire science, state fire assistance and volunteer fire assistance.”

The report provides charts and graphs to show how these Forest Service programs, staffing, and the National Forest System have all been affected. Below, these charts and graphs are described and summarized from the news release:

“Today’s report shows the extent to which many Forest Service program budgets have been cut even before borrowing occurs to accommodate for the rapid rise in firefighting costs in the past 20 years. For example:

  • Funding for the Vegetation and Watershed Management Program – a cornerstone for forest, rangeland, soil and water restoration and enhancement activities, and a key factor in post-fire restoration – has been cut by 22 percent since 2001. This has reduced the Forest Service’s ability to prevent and limit the spread of invasive species, which can weaken forest health and make forests more susceptible to fire.
  • Maintenance and capital improvements on approximately 21,600 recreation sites and 23,100 research and other administrative buildings has been reduced by two-thirds since 2001.
  • Support for recreation, heritage and wilderness activities that connect the public with our natural lands and support tourism and thousands of jobs (visitors to national forests contributed more than $13 billion to America’s economy each year) has been cut by 13 percent.
  • Wildlife and fisheries habitat management has been reduced by 17 percent, limiting recovery efforts for threatened and endangered species.
  • Research funding has declined by over $36 million in the ten year period ending in 2013.

While fire staffing has increased 110 percent since 1998, staffing for those dedicated to managing National Forest Service lands has decreased 35 percent over the same period.”

The Forest Service report not only describes the negative effects of a shrinking budget and increased fires, but it also touches on how a higher sustained level of funding could impact the community both plants and people in a positive way. 

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