Firefighting dollars at the state and federal level are at a premium as hot, intense wildfires continues to scorch the West. It’s early in the summer fire season, and the funding shortage will only grow worse.
Congress and the Legislature must each make it a high priority to increase funding for fire prevention, and find new, creative ways to allocate money when the fires do erupt.
The current funding pattern is an unsustainable Catch-22: When the money runs out to fight fires any given year, the first federal cash reserves that get tapped are those earmarked for fire prevention programs. Money that should be used to thin forests and reduce the fuel load is lost, which allows the wildfire hazard to grow.
Already this year, more than 350,000 acres have burned in the state, five times the average annual acreage. Even more tragic is the loss of some 340 homes in the Carlton Complex fire in Okanogan County, the largest fire in state recorded history.
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The number of major wildfires on federal lands in 11 Western states have grown from an average of 140 a year in the 1970s to 250 in the 2000s, a 79 percent increase. And the six worst fires in the West since 1960 have occurred since 2000.
The federal government’s firefighting budget for 2014 is likely to be depleted by the end of August. The state is in even worse shape: It has already spent $91 million fighting wildfires this year, which means the money in the budget year that was supposed to last until next July 1 is already spoken for, according to state Department of Natural Resources officials.
As the West heats up and fire season lengthens, we must redouble our efforts in the area of wildlife prevention. In the current two-year state budget, Gov. Jay Inslee asked for $20 million to fund fuel reduction projects in the woods. Lawmakers allocated $4 million. When forest health is neglected, dead branches and limbs accumulate and become fuel for the next fire. Trees killed by insect infestation add to the fuel load.
A bill recently introduced in Congress would start to address the nation’s wildfire budget woes. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014 would treat wildfires the same as earthquakes and hurricanes, making extra emergency funding available to fight wildfires so federal agencies wouldn’t have to raid fire prevention funds. One encouraging note: The legislation has 131 co-sponsors — equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans.
In the meantime, everyone recreating and working in the woods must use extreme caution. On Monday, DNR invoked a ban on all outdoor burning in the state, highlighting the extreme fire danger and warning that anyone who starts or spreads a fire is subject to civil and criminal penalties. The burn ban will be in place at least until Sept. 30.
Reducing the risk of wildfire is a daunting task, made more so by climate change. It’s time for Congress and the Legislature to take a leadership role on the funding.