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Federal departments bracing for costly wildfire season

REGION — Firefighters are already bracing for the upcoming fire season and so too are federal government departments anticipating spending anywhere into the millions, perhaps billions of dollars in fighting wildfires this year.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and U.S. Forest Service Department chief Tom Tidwell spoke to reporters during a conference call Tuesday to talk about the need for Congress to pass proposed reforms on how wildfire suppression costs are funded.

“We know that we’re facing another potentially severe and dangerous wildfire season,” said Jewell. “It is no question it’s exacerbated by climate change, which has led to prolonged western drought and longer, hotter, drier fire seasons.”

Jewell said that extreme wildfires can risk drinking water, threaten power grids, destroy homes and businesses, and repairing damage to watersheds caused by wildfires can cost millions and take decades to grow back.

“There’s a lot at stake for everyone,” she added.

There’s a 90 percent chance that the United States Forest Service will spend anywhere between $810 million and $1.62 billion fighting fires this season, Vilsack said.

He added that they’re facing the same potential dilemma as they have the last several years, which has been to borrow money from the restoration and resiliency funds — the very funds that would allow the departments to better restore forests in order to make them more resilient.

“That is precisely the fund that reduces the risk long term of these catastrophic wildfires,” he said.

Vilsack said the departments aren’t asking for more money, just about spending the existing resources, namely the federal emergency funds, in a different way.

“It’s not like you’re increasing the budget,” he said. “You’re just simply using a fund that’s set aside for natural disasters, and that’s precisely what these are,” said Vilsack.

The proposed reform was introduced into the House in January and was last reviewed by the House Natural Resources committee in March.

Tidwell said they’re predicting an above average fire season, with California, Oregon, Washington and northern Idaho moving into Montana seeing conditions deteriorate.

“It looks like we’re set up to have a very similar fire season as we had last year, where we saw seven of the 10 largest fires occur in California, Oregon and Washington.”

Last year, Tidwell said the U.S. Forest Service exceeded their appropriated fire suppression funds by $240 million. He anticipates a similar situation happening again this year.

Fire season is about 60 to 80 days longer than it has been traditionally, said Vilsack. It’s not just fighting more fires, but fighting them over a longer period of time during the year, which, he added, complicates the budget situation.

“We continue to see an ever-increasing amount of Forest Service budget allocated towards fire suppression — nearly 50 percent of the budget in the past several years,” Vilsack said. “That has significantly increased over the last generation.”

The departments have taken some preliminary steps to try and limit risk, including working with local and state governments to build awareness of the need for individual homeowners and communities to be fire ready.

“If we live in that wild land urban interface, we’ve got to clear brush and trees and other flammable materials away from our homes,” Jewell said.

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