But a newly released report reveals that the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of the Interior are projected to spend at least $470 million more than is available to fight wildfires this season.
With the 2,143-acre Etiwanda Fire which was 98 percent contained Wednesday and Californias multiyear drought still in effect, that deficit hits close to home.
The report said the two agencies may need to spend $1.8 billion fighting fires this year, outstripping their available funding of $1.4 billion. Robert Bonnie, under secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, said the forecast demonstrates the difficult budget position the agencies face.
While our agencies will spend the necessary resources to protect people, homes and our forests, the high levels of wildfire this report predicts would force us to borrow funds from forest restoration, recreation and other areas, Bonnie said in a statement.
Both departments have had to divert funds from other programs to fund firefighting efforts for seven of the past 12 years.
The process of fire borrowing pulls money away from other forest-management operations, such as mechanical thinning and controlled burns, which are done to reduce the incidence and severity of wildfires.
That shifting of funds has doubled the number of available firefighters. But it has also reduced staffing elsewhere in the department by 30 percent or more.
The cost of fighting fires has risen dramatically over the past three decades. Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Jones chalked that up to a number of factors.
A lot of it is because of the conditions were seeing right now, she said. We have drought conditions, insect manifestations and hazardous fuel buildups. We have suppressed fires so well in some areas that we now have an over-accumulation of trees, bushes, plants and shrubs.
Jones also noted that snow melts in Southern California are occurring earlier in the season, which leaves more time for trees and other vegetation to dry out.
Were also seeing non-native species in some parts of the West like cheatgrass, and that burns faster and hotter, she said. Fires are much harder to control than they used to be, so that takes more assets.
As a result, fires have become more aggressive and, in many cases, are consuming more acreage, she said. In turn the cost of fighting those fires climbs significantly.
The numbers bear that out.
In 1985, U.S. firefighters battled 82,591 wildfires that consumed nearly 2.9 million acres of land. Fire suppression costs that year totaled $239.9 million.
But since 2006 the annual cost of fighting U.S. wildfires has exceeded $1 billion, with some years nearing $2 billion. In 2012 firefighters tackled 67,774 wildfires that burned through more than 9.3 million acres at a total cost of more than $1.9 billion. That was the nations second most expensive firefighting year over the past 28 years.
That number fell significantly last year, however. In 2013, U.S. wildfires consumed just 4.3 million acres, which was 59 percent of the national 10-year average. But Southern Californias burned acreage was still 138 percent above normal. California also reported the highest number of structures lost last year in wildfires. The Golden State lost 184 homes, as well as 521 outbuildings and 10 commercial structures.
A total of 929 firefighters were called in to battle the Etiwanda Fire, which erupted April 30 just north of Rancho Cucamonga. Fanned by howling Santa Ana winds that sometimes topped 100 mph, the blaze spread quickly and forced the evacuation of 1,600 residents who have since returned to their homes.
Three firefighters suffered minor injuries, and the back fence of one home was destroyed in the blaze.
When I got on the scene, I was amazed by the sound of the wind, said Forest Service spokesman John Miller, who works in the San Bernardino National Forest. It sounded like a jet engine.
The estimated cost of fighting the fire has yet to be determined.
Southern California weathered its first significant wildfire this year in January with the Colby Fire. Fueled by heavy Santa Ana winds, the blaze broke out early Jan. 16 and gobbled up 1,952 acres before it was knocked down six days later. The fire destroyed five homes and damaged seven others as well as 10 outbuildings. Five people suffered minor injuries in the fire, ranging from heat exhaustion and allergic reactions to minor burns.
Eight hundred and thirteen firefighters responded, and it cost $5.2 million to fight it, Forest Service spokesman Nathan Judy said.
California has already seen 167 wildfires this year that consumed 5,598 acres. One of those blazes was fueled by a lightning strike, but the rest were caused by people, fire officials said.
Figures show that 2008 was Californias worst recent fire season, with 1,667 fires that charred more than 1.1 million acres of land. The cost to battle those blazes counting advance training was $904.1 million.
The state has seen at least 1,200 wildfires a year since then, and the number of acres burned and the cost to quell the fires has risen over the past two years. In 2012, 285,222 acres were burned and firefighting costs totaled $481.7 million. Last year 351,550 acres were consumed at a cost of $599 million.
Tom Rolinski, a meteorologist with the U.S. Forest Service, said Californias drought isnt helping matters and could make this years fire season worse than ever.
The potential is there, certainly, he said. Were in a multiyear drought, and there is a high potential for large fire activity.
Rolinski said firefighter staffing in Southern California was boosted two days before the Etiwanda Fire occurred.
That was a situation where we knew a couple days ahead of time that the winds were going to blow, so we had extra crews and resources ready for that, he said. Its unusual see such strong Santa Ana winds this late in the season. They typically start in late September or early October and are over by now.
Wildland fire management of Californias 21 million acres of national forest land is a year-round job. Firefighting resources include 272 wildland fire engines, 41 hotshot crews, 19 helicopter-based firefighting crews, six initial attack crews, 54 call when needed fire crews, 18 bulldozers and a total of about 4,800 firefighters.
Miller said fire crews are aggressive when Southland wildfires break out.
We throw all of our resources at it, he said. When that alarm is sounded were going to respond and were going to respond in force.