Boise, Idaho — Wildfires across the country have burned a record number of acres this year, and with the scorched land comes a record bill, a federal official said Tuesday.
The U.S. Forest Service’s firefighting efforts for fiscal year 2006, which ended Sept. 30, cost more than $1.5 billion, at least $100 million over budget, said Mark Rey, the Agriculture Department undersecretary for natural resources and the environment.
To pay for the fires, money was transferred from other programs that had surpluses, including a reforestation program, said Kent Connaughton, the Forest Service comptroller.
The wildfire season is not over yet, but so far more than 15,515 square miles, or 9.93 million acres, have burned in the Lower 48 states, Rey said. That is the most since at least 1960, when the Boise-based National Interagency Fire Center began keeping reliable records.
The previous record was in 2005, when more than 8.6 million acres burned. The average of the past 10 years has been 4.9 million acres.
The 2006 tab compares with $690 million spent in 2005 and $726 million in 2004, Forest Service spokesman Dan Jiron said.
This year, for the first time, the Forest Service had a comptroller overseeing expenses, and fires that reached certain expense levels automatically triggered an independent review, Rey said.
“We’re getting better results in terms of cost, as a consequence of making cost efficiency and cost containment something that we spend a lot of time on,” he said. “There’s a three-way tension: The safety of firefighters, protecting homes and property and not spending a gazillion dollars. I think we’ve made some strides.”
This fire season was exacerbated by seven large-scale dry lightning storms, more than double the normal number, Rey said. Such storms can ignite several thousand small fires, forcing crews to scramble to make sure all are extinguished.
So far this year, 674 homes – primary residences, not vacation houses – have burned in wildfires, Rey said. That’s a drop from 2002, when roughly 2,000 homes burned, and 2003, when about 3,000 burned.
That indicates property owners and federal and state entities are making progress in reducing fuels around homes and developing wildland protection plans, he said.
President Bush said Tuesday that Congress needs to pass further laws that will provide ways to restore forests once they’ve been burned and commended the Forest Service for their operational planning.
“I really want to thank the brave firefighters who risk their lives on a daily basis to contain the fires,” said Bush, who was in Los Angeles, where a giant wildfire about 50 miles northwest of the city was extinguished Monday, nearly a month after it began.