Thousands of Southern Californians fled their homes in October as smoke billowed from buildings and 70 mile-an-hour Santa Ana winds whipped flames across the landscape. Residents took up shovels and garden hoses to fend off the flames until fire crews arrived from across the state, the rest of the West and even Mexico. Seven people were killed, more than 2,000 homes burned and more than 300,000 were ordered to evacuate before the winds died down and firefighters could control the flames.
The catastrophic California blazes put an exclamation point on another severe fire season: This year's fires fried 3 million more acres than the 10-year average. Dramatic though it was, it's not a record-breaker - 2006 was worse - and, judging by the past five years, big fire seasons like this one appear to be the new norm.
Blame decades of fire suppression, combined with drought and changes in weather patterns linked to climate change. "Fires are behaving much more aggressively much earlier in the year," says Neal Hitchcock, deputy director of operations for the Forest Service. "And the last five years in particular were a lot more severe in terms of acres burned."
Homes sprouting up all over the wildland-urban interface are giving fire crews even more to worry about. Last year, the USDA reported that the Forest Service spends a huge chunk of its firefighting budget protecting private property at the edge of public lands while local governments and homeowners often take a free ride.
Overall, the cost of responding to wildland fires has ballooned for federal agencies. During the last decade, Congress has upped total appropriations to prepare for and fight fires from an average of $1.1 billion annually to an average of $2.9 billion annually.
But even with Congress doling out more dough, the agencies are coming up short. This year, the feds have already spent $1.8 billion battling fires, and Western legislators are requesting another billion dollars in supplemental fire funds. For the Forest Service, wildland fire management has grown from 13 percent of the agency's budget in 1991, to an estimated 45 percent in the agency's 2008 budget request. "That's a remarkable change," says Hitchcock, who notes that the agency has to borrow money from other programs to cover emergency costs. "The suppression part of our budget is based on the 10-year average, and particularly with these last few expensive fire seasons, that does affect other programs."
In response to the growing pile of kindling on federal lands, the Forest Service and BLM created a new fire category in the mid-'90s called "wildland use fires." These fires start naturally and are not suppressed because they benefit the ecosystem and don't threaten buildings or people.
This year, federal agencies stood by while 329 fires engulfed 415,971 acres nationally - 247 of those fires raged freely across 284,550 acres in the West. "In some places, it's a fit, and in some places it will never work," Hitchcock says of efforts to embrace wildland use fires. "I think as we get better at managing those fires, we'll save money."
As usual, the majority of acres torched were in the West. Idaho topped the list with nearly 2 million burned acres, and California came in second nationally with over 1 million. Meanwhile, Wyoming and Colorado got a reprieve, with wildland fires claiming only 76,139 and 16,046 acres respectively.
Hitchcock expects the busy fire seasons to continue. "We seem to be in a mode where we're going to have very severe fire seasons," he says, "especially in the West."
Up in flames
Each year, federal agencies fork out billions to fight fires, and a big chunk of that cash goes to blazes in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), areas where public land meets up with forested private land.
$1.3 billion Average annual cost to fight fires on public lands from 2000-2005.
80 Percentage of that used to protect homes.
$14.54 Amount each taxpayer forked out to protect homes in 2006, compared to $7.65 in 2003.
3,290 Square miles in the Western WUI.
915,072 Number of homes in the Western WUI.
1 in 5 Ratio of those homes that are second homes or vacation properties, compared to 1 in 25 on all other Western private lands.
$1 billion '$1.5 billion Amount that the October San Diego wildfires cost insurance companies.
$835 Average insurance premium for California homeowners, seventh-highest in the nation.
14 Percentage of Western WUI that currently has homes.
$3.3 billion Projected annual cost to protect homes if half of the Western WUI was developed.