Western Wildfires Add to Disasters the Nation Faces: Will Congress Take Action?

September 15, 2017 | 12:25 pm
Glacier National Park Fire. Photo: Brett Timm, National Park Service
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

Record wildfires are now burning across a large swath of the Western US, even as the Southeast and Gulf coasts of the US are struggling to recover from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Yesterday the Forest Service announced that firefighting costs have already topped $2 billion in 2017, for the first time ever. Earlier this week Senators Daines and Tester separately called for action to address wildfire threats, the latest of similar bipartisan efforts. Congress needs to finally get wildfire funding and forest management legislation across the finish line without delay.

Raging wildfires

This year’s western wildfire season is already setting records. Thus far, nearly 49,000 wildfires have burned across over 8.3 million acres. For context, the 10-year average (2006-2016) for burned area was about 5.5 million acres a year. There are now 64 active fires across 10 states. More than 21,000 firefighters have been deployed to help contain these fires.

Some large fires have been burning for over a month and are not expected to be fully contained until mid-October. Some of the larger ones include:

Smoke from wildfires lingers over the west coast of the U.S. and Canada. NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team.

  • The Diamond Creek Fire in Washington which has burned 109,000 acres since July 23rd. It is only 30 percent contained.
  • The Eclipse Complex Fire in California (which includes the Cedar Fire, the Oak Fire and the Abney Fire) which has burned 96,529 acres since August 15th and is 25 per cent contained.
  • The Chetco Bar Fire in Oregon in which has burned 185,920 acres since July 12th and is just 12 percent contained.
  • The Rice Ridge Fire in Montana which has burned 155,900 acres since July 24th and is 40 percent contained.
  • The Highline Fire in Idaho which has burned 84, 619 acres since July 28th. This is one of several fires that have broken out in the Payette National Forest this summer.

And those wildfires don’t just affect the West. Images from  NOAA-NASA’s Suomi NPP satellite show how the smoke is being carried by the jet stream 3,000 miles across the country to the East Coast.

Disaster declarations have been made for a number of the largest wildfires, triggering FEMA Fire Management Assistance to help pay up to 75 percent of a state’s eligible firefighting costs.

Wildfire funding and forest management

As I’ve said in previous blogposts, intense wildfire seasons are severely straining the capacity of federal agencies to respond and forcing them to reallocate budgets away from actions such as forest management that could help limit future wildfires risks. Our policies and funding mechanisms need to catch up to the new realities of a climate-altered world.

The Forest Service has already announced that it will not have enough money to cover the rest of this fire season without borrowing from other areas of its budget that help reduce future wildfire risks—unless Congress acts.

In a statement yesterday that announced the Forest Service’s record-breaking spending on firefighting this year, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said:

Forest Service spending on fire suppression in recent years has gone from 15 percent of the budget to 55 percent – or maybe even more – which means we have to keep borrowing from funds that are intended for forest management. We end up having to hoard all of the money that is intended for fire prevention, because we’re afraid we’re going to need it to actually fight fires.  It means we can’t do the prescribed burning, harvesting, or insect control to prevent leaving a fuel load in the forest for future fires to feed on.  That’s wrong, and that’s no way to manage the Forest Service.

Hotter, drier conditions fueling dangerous wildfires

Hotter, drier conditions, exacerbated by climate change are contributing to worsening wildfire seasons. Earlier this year, we saw an extreme heat wave accompanied by terrible wildfires in parts of the Southwest and California. In early September, record breaking heat in California and the Pacific Northwest again contributed to a spate of large fires in the area, many of which are still burning even as fresh ones break out.

According to the latest US Drought Monitor report: For the last 3 months, precipitation totals were among the lowest 2 percent on record in a broad area from most of Montana westward across central and northern Idaho, Washington, and the northern half of Oregon. 

Increased development in fire-prone areas and lack of resources for maintaining healthy forests is also contributing to worsening risks.

A season of disasters raises the stakes to talk about climate change

Our nation’s ability to respond to multiple, simultaneous disasters is being seriously tested. And while many courageous men and women are doing an incredible job on the frontlines of these disasters—thank you to firefighters, linemen, national guard members and many, many other first responders—our policymakers are still falling short.

The immediate focus is appropriately on disaster response. This is also the right time to ensure that we are implementing smart, forward-looking recovery and preparedness policies, and funding them adequately.

This is also exactly when we should be talking about how climate change is exacerbating risks to people and property. How else can we help ensure we’re doing a better job of protecting people from future disasters?

Congress must act on wildfires

This year’s wildfire season is a fresh reminder of why Congress needs to act expeditiously to fund firefighting and forest management robustly. The stakes are rising as climate change exacerbates the risks of costly and dangerous fires and we can’t afford to put off action for yet another year.

In a recent floor speech, Senator Wyden said:
“It feels like we’ve been at this longer than the Trojan War. The bottom line is the West cannot wait any longer for Congress to send them some help and repair—for the long-term—this broken system that shortchanges prevention and adds fuel to these raging wildfires.”

The good news is that there is widespread bipartisan support for a wildfire funding fix, as this letter to Majority and Minority Senate leaders shows.  Now let’s get this done.