USA — The costs of fighting wildfires are rising dramatically and could keep climbing in the face of climate change thats contributing to longer fire seasons in the West and the spread of housing developments near forests, a science group warned last week.
The annual suppression cost has exceeded $1 billion in each year since 2000, said Rachel Cleetus, senior climate economist with the Union of Concerned Scientists during a phone conference with reporters.
But the actual damage costs when including lost tourism revenue, the harm caused to public health and expenses related to watershed damage can dwarf firefighting costs, she said.
The report comes as the largest wildfire in Washington-state history continues to blaze, and a total of 26 fires are burning almost a million acres in the western U.S. Nationally, wildfires have burned less than half the 10-year average so far this summer.
The report noted that since 1985, fire-suppression costs have increased nearly fourfold from $440 million (in 2012 dollars) to more than $1.7 billion in 2013.
Additionally, climate change is the dominant driver of the fires in the West, according to Jason Funk, a UCS climate scientist. Temperatures have risen in the West by 2 degrees since 1970, and theres been a big change in length of wildfire season, which has risen from five months to seven months, he said.
He also said the average number of big western fires has risen from about 140 per year in the 1980s to 250 in the 2000s.
Another problem, as Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, said in the press briefing, is that 60 percent of all new homes built in the U.S. since 1990 are in high fire-risk wildland-urban interface areas.
Overall, the UCS report found that more than 1.2 million homes across 13 western states are at high or very high risk of wildfires. These properties have a combined estimated value of nearly $190 billion, with 80 percent of the properties at the highest risk in California, Colorado and Texas.
While local governments may approve the development of these new homes, its the state and, especially, federal governments that are stuck with the bills to protect these homes from wildfires.
How to pay for fighting these fires continues to be an issue in Washington. Most federal fire-suppression costs are borne by the U.S. Forest Service, while the Department of the Interior picks up the remainder.
But with only about $1 billion budgeted for fighting fires, the Forest Service will likely once again have to tap other funds, such as forest-thinning projects, to continue fighting fires as the season goes on. This, despite the fact that in terms of acres burned and number of fires (according to the National Interagency Fire Center), its actually been a below-average season nationally.
The Obama administration has proposed changing the way the fires are paid for, tapping Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster funds rather than taking from other programs within agency budgets, according to Jim Douglas, director of the Department of Interior Office of Wildland Fire. A bill is currently pending in Congress to make this legislative change.
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell testified earlier this month that while the government has the money to combat about 99 percent of the wildfires, it needs a stable funding source to pay for the biggest blazes the remaining 1 percent that consume 30 percent of his agencys budget.
These fires are getting bigger, hotter and more damaging, said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., one of the bills co-sponsors.