Science and TechClimate Change


As Wildfires Get Worse, USDA Says Firefighters Need More Funding

The USDA wants to change how Congress funds fighting wildfires as climate change threatens to lengthen wildfire seasons.
Posted at 8:37 PM, Sep 21, 2017

Fighting forest fires has gotten expensive. Wildfire suppression has cost the U.S. Forest Service $2 billion so far this fiscal year.

That's why U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue called on Congress to change the way wildfire suppression is funded. And he's enlisting state foresters' help.

Perdue said, "Write a note to your Congressional delegation saying, 'Please support the permanent fire funding fix so the U.S. Forest Service can manage its forests in a way to get ahead of these forest fires.'"

Right now, the Forest Service often has to borrow money from forest fire prevention funding to pay for fighting fires. Perdue would prefer Congress issue emergency funds — like it does for other disasters like hurricanes — to cover the firefighting costs.

Perdue estimates the amount of budget going to fire suppression has jumped from 15 percent of the Forest Service's budget to 55 percent, or possibly more. The service is having to borrow money from programs like prescribed burning, insect control and harvests — all things that help prevent fires in the first place.

Part of the reason things have gotten so costly is because forest fires are more common now. Over the past 30 years, climate change has doubled the area affected by wildfires in the Western U.S.

And that trend could continue. Current climate models predict an increase in the number of wildfires in the Western U.S. and areas like the American Southwest could see fire seasons that last year round.

This year's fire season has hit the West pretty hard, but it's hard to pin a single year's fire season on climate change. And there are year-to-year fluctuations in the severity of fire seasons. 

So far this year there have been over 50,000 fires that have burned over 8,500,000 acres of land.

But if even the more conservative future models are accurate, these types of fire seasons could become more and more common.