H&N View: Congress should do better arithmetic on firefighting costs

H&N View: Congress should do better arithmetic on firefighting costs

15 October 2012

published by www.heraldandnews.com

USA– When the Forest Service ran out of money for fighting fires at the end of August it did exactly what it has always done — kept right on fighting them.

Meanwhile, the money to pay firefighters, pilots and the others who go into action when fires break out came out of the accounts intended for other uses — some of which would help prevent fires in the first place.

Congress did reimburse most of those funds. That’s good help, but the way Congress arrives at the firefighting figure it puts into the budget each year no longer looks realistic.

It’s a 10-year average of firefighting costs that hasn’t kept pace with an increase in the number and size of fires generally blamed on climate change, or at least on the current drought cycle much of the nation is in.

This year the Forest Service ran out of funds about the same time the Barry Point fire, one of southeastern Oregon’s biggest ever, was burning through nearly 100,000 acres of public and private land mostly in Lake County, east of Klamath County.

While the budget problem didn’t affect the fight against the Barry Point fire, that fire’s size reflects the growing seriousness of wildfires in Oregon. The biggest this year was the 588,715-acre Long Draw fire near Oregon’s borders with Idaho and Nevada.

In a story in the Oct. 9 Herald and News, Bloomberg News Service said that forestry experts at state agencies and environmental groups faulted Congress for providing only about half of the $1 billion actually needed. Congress did add more, but the process still leaves at risk programs that would improve the health of federal forests.

From January through September this year, wildfires nationwide burned nearly 9 million acres compared to the 10-year average of 5.9 million acres. In 2011, fires burned more the 9 million acres, even more above the 10-year average. While not all of those were on Forest Service-administered lands, such as national forests, they do show how much above average wildfires have become.

It also makes it all the more important for Congress to operate with the best set of figures it can get. Getting the figures probably isn’t too hard, but they should become part of the budget from the beginning.

Failure to do it that way makes it too easy to leave undone matters that are vastly important to the health of the national forests.



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