A wildfire damaged mobile homes and property in Fallbrook, Calif., in 2007. (Photo by Andrea Booher/FEMA)

Fighting 2014 Wildfires May Cost Agencies $1.8 Billion

The U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department have only $1.4 billion available for firefighting, however. The wildfire season is becoming longer and more intense.

A report issued May 1 projects that the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior may have to spend $1.8 billion fighting wildfires this year -- $470 million more than they have available for firefighting, according to the Forest Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

During 2013, 34 wildland firefighters died in the line of duty and wildfires burned 4.1 million acres and destroyed more than 1,000 homes.

"The forecast released today demonstrates the difficult budget position the Forest Service and Interior face in our efforts to fight catastrophic wildfire," Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Robert Bonnie said upon the report's release. "While our agencies will spend the necessary resources to protect people, homes, and our forests, the high levels of wildfire this report predicts would force us to borrow funds from forest restoration, recreation, and other areas. The president's budget proposal, and similar bipartisan legislation before Congress, would solve this problem and allow the Forest Service to do more to restore our forests to make them more resistant to fire."

"With climate change contributing to longer and more intense wildfire seasons, the dangers and costs of fighting those fires increase substantially," said Rhea Suh, Interior’s assistant secretary of Policy, Management and Budget. "The president's budget proposal would provide a common-sense framework that gives the flexibility to accommodate peak fire seasons, but not at the cost of other Interior or Forest Service missions or by adding to the deficit."

The FLAME Act enacted in 2009 requires both agencies to produce forecasts of annual suppression expenditures in March, May, and July of each fiscal year; this new forecast is the highest in several years, partly because drought conditions in the West "portend a dangerous fire season," according to USDA.

The agency reported that the president's 2015 budget proposal included a proposed special disaster relief cap adjustment for use when firefighting costs exceed Forest Service and Interior budgets. The same idea is in legislation authored by U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and U.S. Reps. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore.

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