Fighting wildfires isn’t cheap, not with all the boots on the ground, the engines and dozers, the airplanes and fuel. And this year’s fire season — which is shaping up to be one of the most destructive in the modern history of the West — is also on track to be the costliest.
That’s a problem, particularly for those writing checks in Washington, who are having to move millions from one part of the federal budget to another to balance the books. In a potentially dangerous paradox, the U.S. Forest Service, which covers the bulk of the nation’s firefighting costs, is paying the tab in part by cutting programs that can limit the spread of wildfires in the first place, a top agency official said in an interview.
“Fire suppression is cannibalizing the Forest Service budget,” said Robert Bonnie, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who oversees the Forest Service. “Fewer people are doing research, restoration, range-land management.”
While it’s not the first time federal firefighting expenses have run over budget, state and federal officials note an unrelenting increase in costs as the climate warms and forests grow thicker as a result of decades of fire suppression.