USA — Soaring costs of fighting wildfires last summer forced the U.S. Forest Service to slash more than $400 million in spending, affecting efforts to deal with fire in Nevada.
Across the country, other strategies include closing campgrounds and limiting access to some forests.
The trend is spurred by the rising cost of fighting fires balanced against the expense of other programs in the national forest system.
“It’s certainly not a good way to run a business,” said Ed Monnig, supervisor of Nevada’s Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. “Certainly, the fire transfer has a fairly significant and dramatic impact on our ability to get our work done.”
The National Interagency Fire Center reported Wednesday that fires have burned more than 4.7 million acres. This year, the Forest Service expects to spend $1.6 billion containing wildfires.
The $400 million cuts this year follow $200 million in cuts in 2006 and $100 million last year.
Impact in the Humboldt-Toiyabe, largest in the lower 48 states, is wide-ranging.
Noncritical training and travel has been canceled and education and outreach programs scaled back.
And in what Monnig called irony, some of the biggest impacts are to projects to respond to wildfire danger or deal with the damage of past fires:
The largest project impacted was the planned $1.2 million construction of a new fire station in Alpine County, Calif., just south of Lake Tahoe. That project has been bumped back at least one year.
That delay could delay next year’s planned construction of a barracks for hot shot fire crews in Carson City, another project costing about $1 million.
A $180,000 project to replace fencing burned in the Elko area by wildfires in 2007 was cut.
An $80,000 project to replace a bridge near Tuscarora burned by a wildfire in 2006 was cut.
Up to $100,000 planned for fuel reduction and controlled burning projects in eastern Nevada were cut.
Other impacts are being felt across the country. In Montana, research about how wildfires behave, planned in partnership with the University of Montana, is being cut.
Cuts also will impact research into the bark beetle epidemic in the Rockies, with rangers also planning to close some campgrounds and roads there.
Roads and trail maintenance will be delayed or halted in national forests in Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia and Arkansas, officials said.
“The impacts will be far reaching and will affect all parts of the Forest Service’s budget, making it hard for the agency to accomplish much beyond the most minimal aspects of its many responsibilities,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who serves on the House Natural Resources Committee.
Nevada, along with many other western states, had a mild fire season in 2008.
But things were much different in California, where a barrage of lightning strikes in late June triggered an unprecedented set of fires that burned more than 1 million acres.
“Those were very, very costly fires,” Monnig said. “Those couple of days of lightning in California resulted in huge suppression costs.”
Debate continues in Washington over the idea of creating a firefighting account structured in the way Congress funds hurricane and other disaster-recovery projects, with lawmakers like Udall supporting the idea.
As long as the structure remains in its current state and with major fire seasons coming almost every year, huge budget challenges will likely continue, Monnig said.