The Politics of Fire Suppression: Did Bush Administration Budget Cuts Cause Bigger Wildfires?

The Politics of Fire Suppression: Did Bush Administration Budget Cuts Cause Bigger Wildfires?

30 July 2008

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USA —In 2007, the United States Forest Service (USFS) spent $1.37 billion fighting wildfires, up from $307 million ten years ago. This year, that number will be much greater due to the2008 California Firestorm.  For example, theLime Complex in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, which is not contained, has a current cost (7/28/08) of $38,627,355!  How will financially strapped California and the USFS pay for these fires and did these fires grow larger because of Bush administration budget cuts?

Year after year,Bush has cut funding from the USFS, yet within this budget, more money is allocated for fire management and less for fire prevention.  In February, 2008,Bush proposed decreasing fire preparedness monies by 11 percent. Although the budget calls for a $150 million increase for extinguishing blazes, prevention funding is slashed by $77 million, including a $13 million reduction insmall fuels removal.Similar cuts were proposed in 2007Casey Judd, business manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, a firefighter employee group explains, “The administration still has it backward. Preparedness should be the focus, not suppression.”   Norm Dicks, D-Wash., adds, “Common sense would be that if you put more money into fuel reduction, it’s going to have an effect on having less severe fires.”  The White House response was that money could be shifted between the agency’s firefighting and fire suppression accounts, as needed.  This is exactly what concerns USFS employees with the current California wildfires.

After last week’s community meeting with the incident team, I asked an information officer about how these fires would be paid for after the season ends.  Jim responded exactly with the answer the White House gave in February, money would be shifted within the budget, and he feared that the USFS would simply become a firefighting agency if the current trend continues: No more money for fire prevention, recreation, roads, etc.  This may not come to fruition, asCongress is debating the creation of a separate federal account to handle catastrophic wildfires.  Furthermore, financially strapped California will not be left high and dry for the CalFire incidents it has managed. FEMA will reimburse California 75% of firefighting costs this year, and the agency is providing emergency funding.  Meanwhile,California is debating tax for home owners living in fire-prone areas.

There are no simple solutions to the 2008 California wildfires, and it is hard to be prepared for the magnitude of this firestorm.  Obviously, Bush did not start these fires, but his budget cuts have contributed to how the USFS has been able to resolve the effects of a hundred years of fire suppression.  Fire preparedness should be a high budget priority. InGore’s recent speech, the former Vice President explained it well why we should concerned:

Today, unprecedented fires are burning in California and elsewhere in the American west.

Higher temperatures lead to drier vegetation that makes kindling for mega-fires of the kind that have been raging in Canada, Greece, Russia, China, South America, Australia, and Africa. Scientists in the Department of Geophysics and Planetary Science at Tel Aviv University tell us that for every one degree increase in temperature, lightning strikes will go up another 10 percent. And it is lightning, after all, that is principally responsible for igniting the conflagration in California today.

Fire suppression and fire preparedness go hand in hand.

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