|Cal Fire firefighters back-burning (Photo: Josh Edelson)|
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife: Bio
Climate change is here. “We can see it, and we can feel it,” as President Obama said recently.
According to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, fighting wildfires will take up two-thirds of Forest Service funding by 2025, or nearly $1.8 billion, as summer temperatures continue to rise owing to greenhouse gas emissions.
“Climate change and other factors are causing the cost of fighting fires to rise every year,” Vilsack said in a statement timed to the release of a new report on the Forest Service’s wildfire spending. “But the way we fund our Forest Service hasn't changed in generations.”
Hotter days mean grasslands and trees dry out quicker, leading to more-numerous and more-severe forest fires each year. Adding insult to injury, the loss of millions of acres of carbon-storing trees to fires intensifies climate change even more.
If the Forest Service’s budgeting process stays the same, Vilsack fears that funding for projects that demonstrably reduce both wildfire and climate risks, such as forest restoration, will dry up. “These factors are causing the cost of fighting fires to rise every year, and there is no end in sight,” said Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell.
According to the Forest Service, wildfire season in the Western U.S. is 78 days longer than in the 1970s, putting the 190 million acres of federal forests and grasslands at greater risk. Wildfires are also more routinely ending up closer to homes and towns as development expands into once rural or wilderness areas.
The problem isn’t hitting the U.S. alone. According to a study published in July in the journal Nature, fire seasons lengthened on every continent other than Australia (and Antarctica, which was not a part of the study) between 1979 and 2013. Overall, fire seasons have grown by 19%, with areas of South America experiencing an extra month of fire vulnerability.
In the U.S., the Forest Service absorbs increased firefighting costs into its regular budget, which has remained relatively flat since 1995. If the trend continues, the Forest Service will have to move $700 million out of other programs to meet firefighting needs over the next 10 years.
“We must treat catastrophic wildfire not like a routine expense, but as the natural disasters they truly are,” said Vilsack. “It’s time to address the runaway growth of fire suppression at the cost of other critical programs.”