More than 10 million acres of forest burned in 2015, the worst year for U.S. wildfires ever recorded. With incredibly dry conditions across the American West, fire lines were intensely hot and flames spread faster, producing some of the most dangerous conditions firefighters have ever seen.
In the face of climate change and drought, longer and more severe fire seasons are to be expected. But last year the United States also suffered more catastrophic fires. These fires are natural disasters, as destructive as many hurricanes, tornadoes or floods. But that’s not how the federal government treats them, or pays for them.
California’s 2015 fire season, for instance, included blazes that ranked among the most destructive in state history. The Valley fire in Lake, Napa and Sonoma counties burned 50,000 acres in just one day and 76,000 acres total. It killed four people and destroyed 1,958 homes and other buildings. The Butte fire burned more than 70,000 acres in Amador and Calaveras counties, killed two people and destroyed 1,293 structures. The Rough fire, the year’s largest, burned 150,000 acres in Fresno County. Nearly 4,000 firefighters were deployed to contain that blaze.
If it had been massive storms that caused such extraordinary devastation, and their costs outstripped the budget for disaster response, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies could access additional federal funding to pay for cleanup and recovery. In contrast, wildfire response remains subject to strict spending limits, regardless of a fire’s severity. Worse, outdated budget rules require the U.S. Forest Service to fight these fires by diverting funds from other parts of its budget — including fire prevention programs that remove dead trees and brush from forests.
This shortsighted practice means that as the Forest Service spends more on combating huge fires, it has less to spend on preventing them. States get hamstrung as a result too. California, for instance, shares responsibility with the Forest Service for maintaining public lands, but state, federal and private acreage are intertwined throughout the state. California’s efforts to clear brush in its sections of forest are less effective if the federal government doesn’t also clear its sections. Wildfires, after all, don’t stop at jurisdictional boundaries.
From the Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0218-feinstein-pimlott-fire-budgets-20160218-story.html