Federal budget to fight wildfires depleted

  • Article by: Darryl Fears
  • Washington Post
  • August 23, 2013 - 8:24 PM


– For the second straight year, the federal government has run through its budget for fighting wildfires amid a grueling, deadly season and will be forced to move $600 million from other funds, some of which help prevent fires.

This year’s depletion of the budget, expected Friday, reflects the new normal in firefighting, where parched seasons last at least two months longer than in previous decades, and wildfires burn bigger and hotter, according to the U.S. Forest Service and conservationists who track fires.

More than 31,900 fires have burned 3 million acres in the United States this year, according to the Forest Service. Compared with other fire seasons in the past decade, that is mild. Last year produced the second-worst season on record: 67,700 fires burned 9.3 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. In 2006, nearly 96,300 fires burned 9.8 million acres.

A total burn of 5 million acres was once a rarity in fire seasons that ran from June to September before 2001. But since that time, the season has expanded from May to October, as a changing climate brought longer stretches of dryness and drought, providing fires more fuel to burn.

In an Aug. 16 letter to regional foresters, station directors and deputy chiefs, Forest Service Fire Chief Thomas Tidwell issued several directives, telling subordinates to defer awarding contracts for everything except the removal of hazardous fuels and emergencies, travel only when absolutely necessary, and cut back on hiring and overtime pay. Reducing Forest Service funding affects rural economies, where the agency pays contractors to remove trees and brush, and other operations such as logging.

As of Monday, the Forest Service spent $967 million to pay for firefighters and the equipment that supports them. That included more than $200 million in the congressional Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement supplemental account known as FLAME.

That meant there was only $50 million left to control at least 40 fires burning hundreds of thousands of acres in Idaho, Oregon, California, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Montana and other states. President Obama was briefed on fire-control efforts earlier this week, and nearly 18,000 personnel are currently fighting fires.

The Forest Service spends $100 million per week to manage fires when at Preparedness Level 5, its highest state of alert, which it reached Tuesday, a spokesman said. Now the service must borrow from other programs, some of which prevent fires, to put them out.

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