USA — As wildfires in other states have become bigger, deadlier and costlier to battle, South Dakota is paying the price in the form of deferred forestry projects, from tree removal to trail maintenance.
South Dakota has avoided the massive wildfires that have scorched thousands of acres of land in California, Arizona and other western states this year, but thecost of fighting those blazes could impact local projects locally while renewing calls to change the way the federal government funds firefighting efforts.
Fire suppression funds each year come from one large pot allocated by Congress that is dispersed nationally based on when and where fires happen. The problem facing wildfire suppression activities in South Dakota and other states is that as blazes have become bigger, deadlier and costlier to battle, the funding doled out by Congress has fallen short. In seven out of the past 12 years, more money has been needed to combat wildfires than Congress allocated.
With much of California and the southwestern U.S. facing severe to exceptional drought, a similar shortfall is expected again this year with the departments of Agriculture and Interior estimating they might need to spend $1.8 billion fighting fires this year, while the agencies have only $1.4 billion available.
President Obama last week requested an additional $615 million to fight wildfires this year. Obama also asked Congress to add wildfires to the list of natural disasters eligible for federal emergency assistance, which would eliminate the need for dipping into wildfire-prevention programs to pay ever-increasing firefighting costs.
Theres a problem with the way forest fires are funded, said Dennis Jaeger, deputy forest supervisor in the Black Hills National Forest. They are not funded like any other natural disaster like a flood a tornado or anything else.
The USDA and Interior Department transfer money from other programs when the suppression costs exceed the funding Congress gives them a practice known as fire borrowing. The agencies transferred $636 million last year. That forces cuts at the local level to cover the shortfall. The projects most likely to be affected are those that improve the overall health of the forest such as thinning forests and clearing underbrush, helping reduce the likelihood or severity of future fires.
South Dakota has not been immune to these cuts.
Last year, a $5,000 project to clear fallen trees toppled by the bark beetle and conduct trail-related maintenance on 50 to 100 miles of trail in the Black Hills National Forest was deferred, according to the USDA. A year earlier, more than $220,000 in projects to remove hazardous trees, conduct watershed improvements and wildlife projects were delayed, deferred or canceled in the state.
Most of wildfires in the U.S. are caught before they can grow into a major blaze. The Black Hills averages 135 fires each year with 98 percent of them destroying fewer than 5 acres.
Its those 2 percent of the fires that get big on us and thats where the cost comes in, Jaeger said.
The White House has estimated 1 percent of the blazes soak up 30 percent of the federal governments wildfire budget each year.
The wildfire season is lasting 60to80 days longer and burning twice as many acres compared to 30 years ago, according to the USDA. The longer season and heightened severity have forced the USDAs Forest Service to shift resources away from forest restoration and research and other activities that maintain forests and help reduce future catastrophic fires to fight the blazes. In the early 1990s, the Forest Service spent less than 15 percent of its budget on fire suppression; today that number runs at about 40 percent or more.
Its become kind of the norm to run out of money, said Jennifer Jones, a spokeswoman with the federal governments National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
She said the Forest Service, Interior Department and other groups have a responsibility to protect lives, property, infrastructure like power lines and valuable natural and cultural resources from fires. We cant just stop those activities when the money runs out, Jones said. We have to keep working to fulfill those responsibilities.
In recent years, officials in the Black Hills National Forest have devoted a larger amount of resources to removing vegetative growth which can act as kindling for wildfires closer to communities and subdivisions. where it can have the biggest impact. Greater attention also has been focused planning for on partnering byfederal and state agencies in South Dakota, emergency responders and others to run drills and plan for how to respond to a major outbreak.
There is clearly an agreement that fire is an issue that needs to be addressed, said Alan Rowsome, a budget expert at The Wilderness Society, a conservation group. Were seeing hotter and more severe fire seasons that can imperil local communities, stress resources and put firefighters in danger, said Alan Rowsome, a budget expert at The Wilderness Society, a conservation group.
The White House in its 2015 budget and lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have proposed changing the way the federal government pays for fighting the nations largest wildfires, a move intended to preserve funds meant to prevent them from occurring in the first place. The legislation so far has languished in Congress.
Under the change, the Forest Service and Interior Department would be able to use the Federal Emergency Management Agencys multi-billion dollar disaster fund now targeted for relief work after disasters such as hurricanes and major floods to finance efforts to put out the biggest 1 percent of wildfires.
Sen. Tim Johnson, who co-sponsored the Senate bill, said repeated failures to adequately fund wildfires shows a need to deal with the reality of the shortfall.
Dividing our wildfire fighting budgets into two parts, one for fighting routine wildfires and one for fighting the largest 1 percent of catastrophic fires, is a solution Smokey Bear would applaud, Johnson said. , referencing the mascot responsible for educating the public about the dangers of forest fires.
Rep. Kristi Noem, who has supported the House bill, said streamlining fire suppression would ensure enough money goes to timber harvests, hazardous fuels removal and other activities needed to prevent wildfires. Sen. John Thune said he supported a change to the way wildfire fighting is paid for, but said any solution must avoid increasing the countrys budget deficit.