Forests, fires and budgets

No easy answers when it comes to funding prevention, response

The factors that contribute to fire risk across the national forest system are neither easy nor cheap to address. Drought, vulnerabilities because of beetle infestation, increased human populations in forest-rich regions and shrinking dollars assigned to preventing and fighting fires make the problem a vexing one for firefighters, forest managers, residents of forested areas and anyone concerned about forest health. This is a recipe for all involved to be less than satisfied and less than safe.

The U.S. Forest Service manages 191 million acres of wooded lands – primarily in the West – and that task alone is significant. Competing demands on public resources contained in the nation’s forests require balance and careful consideration of how their ecosystems interrelate. Throw the growing incidence and intensity of wildfires into the mix and that challenge grows beyond Herculean.

The Forest Service has the right idea: to combine prevention through fuels reduction and other mitigation methods with active fire management that considers the risks and benefits of a particular fire when determining how to respond to it. That is a marked departure from the agency’s earlier approach to fires, which was one of strict intolerance – think Smokey Bear.

Nevertheless, drought, population density and vulnerable trees have combined to make fire risk serious – not just for forests but for those growing numbers of Americans who live near them. That is in combination with shrinking budgets for preventing fire, through the Forest Service’s Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program and in fighting it once it ignites. And there is no impending sign of relief.

The 2013 fire season is off to a devastating start. The Black Forest Fire in Colorado Springs burned more than 14,000 acres, 509 homes and killed two people. Closer to home, the West Fork and Windy Pass fires near Wolf Creek Ski Area have burned at least 80,000 acres more. Fire restrictions have been imposed in the region, and high temperatures continue. Add to that a further ratcheting of fire-related dollars and forest managers have few good answers to combat the growing problem.

The Obama administration is proposing to cut fuels-reduction funding from $419 million this year to $292 million next. That will leave managers with far fewer resources than necessary to work as effectively as they need to in preventing fires.

Once those fires strike, though, it is not cheap to fight them. The Forest Service outspent its firefighting budget by $440 million in 2012 – a bitter but necessary pill for all involved to swallow, given the spending environment in Washington, D.C. This year’s fire season is likely to be even more expensive, and that’s a bill that must be paid. Despite its revised philosophy about extinguishing fires, the federal government cannot simply decline to manage their margins just because the budgeted funds have been expended. For that reason, finding more funds to mitigate fire risk is still a good investment, and reducing them because of the huge expense of fighting fires is a poor trade.

The Forest Service is doing the best it can with the limited resources available to counter a series of dynamics far beyond its control and ability to respond perfectly. The circumstances are far from ideal and reflect a perfect storm of politics, environmental factors and economics.