BURNING A HOLE

The Government Is Running Out of Money to Fight California’s Wildfires

The state has already borrowed funds to try to pay to halt the wildfires. But it’s going to get worse.

california wildfire budget goverment sacramento bee firefighter fire medicino complex carr biggest in history global warming climate change

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty

On Monday, the Mendocino Complex Fire became the largest wildfire in California’s history. It’s scorched more than 300,000 acres, and has grown to about ten times the size of San Francisco. The neighboring Carr Fire has burned through more than 173,000 acres, claiming seven lives.

Those are just two of the 17 fires that have thrust California into the worst wildfire season in state history. They’ve also raised a crucial question: Does the U.S. Forest Service—the agency tasked with preventing and suppressing fires on federal land—even have the money to keep fighting them?  

It’s not good news. The U.S. Forest Service’s fire suppression budget has been struggling to keep pace with worsening wildfires for years, according to Jennifer Jones, a spokesperson for the agency. Jones explained via email that Congress appropriates fire suppression funds each year based on a rolling average of the prior decade, and that the agency could draw on emergency supplemental funds in times of need.  

But as fires have grown larger and more destructive—and more people have built homes on fire-prone land—two problems arose. The first is that the 10-year average grew larger each year, Jones said, which meant that “the Forest Service could request less funding for other programs, including research [and] prevention.”

The second, she added, is that “in almost every year since 2000,” both the budget and the supplemental funds were no longer enough to cover the cost of fighting the fires. This forced the agency to take funds from other parts of the Forest Service’s budget.

It’s just getting harder to fight fires. They cost more, they’re more dangerous, and they’re happening at a larger frequency.
Jeffrey Kane, associate professor of fire ecology and fuels management at Humboldt State University

In 2017—a “historic high” for fire suppression costs, she said—expenses hit $2.4 billion. According to Trump’s 2019 budget proposal, this required the Forest Service to take $527 million from other programs. The proposal noted that this borrowing “impedes the missions of land management agencies to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire and maintain healthy functioning ecosystems.” The fire costs were projected to increase by $500 million to $1 billion in the next five years, Jones added, which would consume as much as 67 percent of the agency’s budget by 2021.

Thankfully, that won’t happen. That’s because of the “fire funding fix” included in March’s omnibus package. The fix will provide for the appropriation of a fixed, yearly budget of $1.011 billion for fire suppression, and for the appropriation of additional funding—beginning at $2.25 billion, and rising $100 million per year through 2027—if that $1.011 billion is spent.

That fix, however, won’t go into effect until 2020. The emergency supplemental funds won’t be available in 2018 or 2019, either, although Congress appropriated an additional $500 million for 2018.

As of Wednesday, the Mendocino Complex Fire and the Carr Fire were only 47 percent contained, and still growing. It’s still possible that more wildfires could strike this year.

And these fires will only get worse in years to come. As The Daily Beast reported previously, global climate change is inextricably linked with the hot, dry weather conditions that make wildfires more common, more dangerous, and more difficult to contain.

“It’s just getting harder to fight fires,” Jeffrey Kane, an associate professor of fire ecology and fuels management at Humboldt State University, told The Daily Beast. “They cost more, they’re more dangerous, and they’re happening at a larger frequency. And that’s largely—not all, but largely—associated with climate change.” Hotter temperatures, Kane explained, will dry out fuels like leaves, trees, and branches more quickly, leaving them more susceptible to catching fire.

And while this “fire funding fix” may resolve the budget problems for suppressing existing fires, experts are concerned that Trump’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2019 will gut vital prevention and research programs that underscore suppression efforts, meaning that the government will have to keep shelling out billions for suppression in the years to come.

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Despite the obvious uptick in wildfires, The Sacramento Bee reported that the Trump administration proposed slashing the section of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget dedicated to tree clearing and forest prevention by tens of millions of dollars.

We don’t do enough each year, and each year goes by, and the fire deficit keeps going up.
Jeffrey Kane, associate professor of fire ecology and fuels management at Humboldt State University

This is against the protests of many experts, who claim that even at current levels, federal funding isn’t doing enough to prevent the start and spread of deadly wildfires.

“Currently we don’t do [forest management work] sufficiently enough to see a major, broad scale impact on reducing wildfires,” Kane told the Bee, which also reported the independent Little Hoover Commission’s conclusion that “California’s forests suffer from neglect and mismanagement, resulting in overcrowding that leaves them susceptible to disease, insects and wildfire.”

Part of the cuts to the Forest Service’s budget—which, under Trump’s proposal, would lose $46 million in research funds—include the elimination of the Joint Fire Science Program, a research effort between the Forestry Service and Interior Department agencies. The proposal has concerned scientists, including Kane—who called the Program “one of the best models of public funding being used to inform land management practices in a very applied way.”

He added that “It’s never been that much money, relatively speaking, and yet I think it’s had a lot of benefit.”

Kane explained that the Joint Fire Science Program funded major studies (he participated in one) designed to identify which fire prevention treatments—like cutting down limbs, also known as thinning, or strategically burning older trees before they’re hit by a wildfire, known as prescribed burning—are most effective. Reveal added that the Program has funded 280 projects conducted by 1,045 scientists in the past decade, and that those projects’ findings have been vital in on-the-ground prevention efforts. One example is New Mexico’s Ute Park Fire, where many homes avoided damage after the county implemented a fuel reduction plan based on studies the program sponsored.

Even if Congress salvages the program, Reveal notes, the financial uncertainty wrought by Trump’s budget proposal has already forced it to pause next year’s research. Funding for fire research was dwindling for years before Trump’s drastic budget proposal, going from $13 million per year before 2011 to only about $3 million per year for fiscal year 2018.

What’s more, all of these programs only impact federal land, leaving states largely to fend for themselves in terms of fire prevention and management.

California has actually been quite proactive compared to the Trump administration; Governor Jerry Brown signed an executive order that implemented a bevy of projects to improve fire management and prevention on state lands. But the federal government owns about 40 percent of California’s land; the state can only do so much—especially if Trump’s budget plan passes.  

Cassandra Moseley, research professor and director at the University of Oregon’s Institute for a Sustainable Environment, isn’t particularly concerned about this. “This Congress, both sides of the aisle, have not shown themselves not particularly interested in the president’s budget,” she told The Daily Beast.

But the House and the Senate also appear reluctant to provide sufficient funding. Although they have largely rejected Trump’s massive cuts, the Bee reports that the Senate only included $5 million for removing trees, brush, and other flammable materials that fuel expanding wildfires in their budget proposal, despite the fact that the House reportedly proposed $20 million. The deadline for approval is September 30th.

There is hope. The case of the Cranston Fire, for example, suggests how infrastructural damage could be reduced if the U.S. Forest Service was funded more fully. Before the Cranston Fire stuck the small town of Idyllwild, the Bee reported, the forest service had cut down overgrown and dead trees, applied flame retardant, and conducted prescribed burns. They were approximately three-quarters of the way finished when the fire struck in late July. But because of their efforts, they managed to contain 96 percent of the fire in the weeks that followed. Only four structures were severely damaged, and no one was killed.

Currently, the Forest Service only performs that kind of treatment on 1-1.5 percent of federal land in California, the Bee notes. Until more money is allocated to preventing fires across the state, the Cranston Fire will likely be the exception, not the rule.

“If we can apply treatments to an area—through a wide range of means—then we can be effective in reducing the impacts,” Kane said. “And we just can’t do that much. I assume part of that is a funding issue, part of that is just a prioritization issue, and part of that is the overwhelming scale at which we need to do work at. It’s just too much, we don’t do enough each year, and each year goes by, and the fire deficit keeps going up.”