There are few things Democrats and Republicans in Washington can agree upon. One is that the western wildfire problem has gotten out of control. From the overwhelming firefighting costs to the amount of acres at high fire risk due to challenges of drought, insects and fuels build-up, the issue has ballooned like the actual fires themselves. Solutions, however, have been hard to find.
According to an August 2015 U.S. Forest Service report, the budget for firefighting has more than tripled over the past two decades. Today, it represents 52 percent of the Forest Service’s budget. Yet, while the percentage the Forest Service spends on firefighting has gone up, its overall budget has been flat. This means less money for programs that support private landowners for such things as fire mitigation that can reduce the risk of wildfires.
While there has been a bipartisan solution, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, proposed to solve this problem, Congress still has yet to resolve this issue as we saw with the bill being dropped from the December Omnibus appropriations bill. But that is only the first step of solving the wildfire issue. We must do more to get ahead of the problem and mitigate wildfire risk, especially when we consider what is at risk: lives, homes and our clean water supply.
Currently, state and federal governments are working to lower the risk of catastrophic fires on public lands, yet don’t take into account neighboring private lands. With the West a patchwork of ownerships, strategies to lower wildfire risk on private and family-owned land must be considered too. In fact, according to a new report from the American Forest Foundation, one third of the high fire risk in the West is actually on private and family owned land.
Given the high costs of mitigation practices, especially for family landowners, cost sharing and assistance programs can help. Some exist already and the number is growing. But, no amount of government funding will ever cover the costs to entirely mitigate wildfire risk. This is where we must consider a market strategy.