Wildfires and Climate Change: Current Policies Fail to Limit Wildfire Risks

August 10, 2016 | 9:54 am
US Department of Agriculture/CC BY (Flickr)
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

Wildfires are currently burning across a vast swath of the western US, including in Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.

Hot, dry conditions and an abundance of brush and fuelwood have created the conditions for intense fires. Worsening wildfire seasons are outstripping the capacity of federal agencies to respond. Congressional action could help improve our policies to reflect the new wildfire realities.

August 2016 wildfire status update

So far, 2016 has been a less severe fire year nationwide than 2015, with fewer acres burned as of August 8. Last year, by this time, over 6 million acres had burned, compared with about 3.5 million this year. Nevertheless, in parts of the country—particularly in drought-stricken California—it has been a terrible year. In California alone, eight people have died since June due to wildfire related causes.

The National Interagency Fire Center is predicting a continued high risk of wildfires in many western states for August (see map). In addition to prolonged drought conditions, California is also contending with significant tree mortality due to a bark-beetle infestation and the drought—over 66 million dead trees, according to CAL FIRE.

August 2016 wildland fire potential outlook

Our current policies are failing to limit wildfire risks


This post is part of a series on Planning Failures: The Costly Risks of Ignoring Climate Change.

My colleagues and I have written several blog posts, a report, and created an infographic to explain how climate change is contributing to longer, more intense wildfire seasons. In addition to hotter, drier conditions, forest management and fire suppression practices plus growing development in wildfire-prone areas are also contributing to costly wildfire seasons. To contain the threat of wildfires, we have to address the problem on all these fronts.

But, for the most part, our firefighting, forest management and development policies haven’t yet caught up to the new realities of worsening wildfire risks in a warming world. By failing to plan and budget appropriately for better fire and forest management, and think carefully about how to limit development in fire-prone areas, we are effectively increasing the risks and costs of wildfires.

An opportunity for legislative action

In June Senators Murkowski, Cantwell, Wyden, Crapo, and Risch released bipartisan draft legislation, the Wildfire Budgeting, Response and Forest Management Act, which takes some important steps toward addressing problems with the federal firefighting and forest management budgets. It also takes steps toward investing in hazardous fuels management, technology for fire-fighting, and improved fire mapping.

There are two separate but related issues on budgets for firefighting and forest management, both of which result in funding for firefighting coming at the expense of better forest management which can limit future fire risks:

  • The US Forest Service is required to fund its firefighting efforts entirely from within its budget, based on a 10-year rolling average. Given the trend toward worsening wildfire seasons, that 10-year average is rising and that means that more and more of the discretionary budget will go to firefighting, rather than other activities like forest management.
  • The costs of fighting large fires are eating into the budget of the Forest Service, which means that in bad fire years the agency is forced to borrow from other areas of its budget including those devoted to forest management.

The bill does a better job addressing the second problem identified above but could be improved to also address the first.

The Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee also held an important hearing on the bill with several prominent experts testifying to the importance of passing robust legislation to address wildfire budgeting problems (excerpts below):

Robert Bonnie, Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment, USDA:

“The single most important step Congress can take to advance forest health and resilience is to enact a comprehensive fire budget solution—one that addresses both the growth of fire programs as a percent of the agency’s budget and the compounding annual problem of transferring funds from non-fire programs to cover the cost of fire suppression.”

Bryan Rice, Director, Office of Wildland Fire, U.S. Department of the Interior:

“Fixing how we pay for managing wildland fire is the single most important action Congress can take to ensure we have sufficient resources for restoration and to help us create a more resilient, fire resistant landscape.”

Ken Pimlott, Director of CALFIRE:

“Suppressing fires is becoming more expensive and complex as a result of issues including prolonged drought, lack of active forest management, and more people moving into Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) areas…”

“There is a critical need to access disaster funding to pay for catastrophic (large, costly, extreme) wildfires – placing these fires on par with other natural disasters or fund wildfire suppression beyond a certain limit in increasingly challenging wildfire years.”

There are certainly improvements that should be made to the wildfire funding bill in line with some of the recommendations made by experts at the hearing, but overall the bill is a positive step forward.

With wildfire risks and fire suppression costs steadily increasing, the West is in dire need of policy changes that can help build greater resilience to wildfire.

Congress should make it a priority to include fixes and pass bipartisan wildfire legislation as soon as possible after it returns to session in September.