WASHINGTON – Climate change appears to be fueling more wildfires as forest service officials are increasingly concerned they don't have the funds to effectively handle another devastating season.
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told senators last week he has enough budget funds to deal with most of the 7,000 fires that occur annually in national forests. "It's that 1 to 2 percent of our fires, that when we have a very active fire season, that goes way beyond our capability to handle within our appropriations," he said.
In 1995, 16 percent of the Forest Service budget was dedicated to fire fighting. Now, it's more than half. Tidwell said the Forest Service predicts that fire programs will be 67 percent of the budget by 2025.
Tidwell said the 10 biggest fires last year cost almost $300 million alone to battle. Because wildfires are not considered natural disasters, the forest service doesn't have access to emergency funds if costs exceed projections.
Some experts said the active fire seasons are becoming more and more common because of climate change.
"Big fires occur when it's warm and dry, that doesn't take rocket science to figure out," said John Abatzoglou, an associate professor at the University of Idaho. He co-wrote a study last year linking human-caused climate change to the increased threat of wildfires.
Abatzoglou said prolonged periods of drought and low humidity — ingredients for a wildfire — have become more common. He said about half of the increase in "fuel aridity" — a dryness measure that indicates higher fire risk — can be attributed to human activity.
Jennifer Jones, a Forest Service spokeswoman, said fire suppression has become more difficult with the need to protect the increasing number of homes in wildfire areas, hazardous fuel buildups, drought and longer fire seasons.
The Forest Service acknowledged the impact of climate change in a 2015 report, finding that "climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970. The U.S. burns twice as many acres as three decades ago and scientists believe the acreage burned may double again by midcentury."
H. Sterling Burnett, a research fellow on environmental policy at the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank, disagreed. He said that the increased risk of wildfires is attributable to mismanagement of national forests
He acknowledged that there has been an increase in carbon emissions, but doesn't think human activity is affecting global patterns.
President Donald Trump has reversed many of the previous administration's climate policies, pulling the U.S. out of the Paris climate accords and signing an executive order rolling back President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan.
If Trump follows through on his plans, as much as 1.8 gigatonnes more carbon dioxide could be emitted in 2030, said analysts at the Bonn climate talks in May. Abatzoglou said, "Certainly, policies that were to do a 180 on any sort of mitigation are not desirable from a climate perspective."