Lost in the Woods

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This article by Jodi Peterson first appeared in the September 01, 2014 issue of High Country News.

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Smoke and mirrors

Congress can’t seem to solve a big problem: how to pay for battling wildfires.

Central Washington is not where you want to be right now. As of mid-August, wildfires had killed one person and burned some 370 homes and nearly 400,000 acres — more than triple the average acres of recent years. Thunderstorms have brought some rain but also sparked new fires; as Gov. Jay Inslee put it, “We’re still very much at the mercy of the weather gods and wind and lightning.” Major fires were burning in Oregon and California, too.

Every year, the same story plays out somewhere in the West. The Forest Service allocates about 40 percent of its budget to firefighting, but in extreme years, that funding burns up by July or August, a month or more before fire season officially ends. Then the borrowing begins. Staffers call it “fire stealing” — taking money to fight fires from research, forest stewardship and recreation.

Congress is supposed to return that borrowed money, but even when it does, the work has already been disrupted. Ironically, funding is often yanked from projects that could help reduce the risk and intensity of wildfires. During 2012 and 2013, roughly $1 billion was pilfered, leaving the agency too broke to thin trees in the Verde watershed wildland-urban interface in Arizona, for example, or reduce hazardous fuels in California’s Tahoe National Forest.

Federal and state officials and policymakers agree that the current budgeting model, also used by the Department of Interior, is broken. And firefighting costs keep climbing: Wildfire season is two months longer than it used to be, and since the 1970s, the average acreage burned has increased five-fold. Plus, development keeps encroaching on forests, forcing firefighters to defend homes, an expensive —and dangerous — task.

“We haven’t talked to anyone who doesn’t acknowledge the idiocy of stealing money from the very programs that are supposed to prevent wildfires or mitigate their effects,” says Jim Ogsbury, executive director of the Western Governors’ Association. Fixing the problem, though, is another matter. “Fires are going north,” Inslee says, “but the funding is going south.”

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