The last two decades have exhibited a significant growth in total acres burned nationwide. Between 1984 and 1993, an average of 2.7 million acres of land were burned per year. Between 2004 and 2013, that average increased to 7.3 million. Moreover, of the top ten biggest burns on record, nine occurred after the year 2000.
“Until the ’80s or so, it was easy to explain fires as consequence of fuel accumulation,” explains Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University. “Now, piled on that are the effects of climate change. We are seeing larger fires and more of them.”
California is in the midst of a historic drought, but it is not the only state affected, nor is its exceptionally dry conditions the singular issue. The country’s wildfire response system is underfunded, which is a result of it not being adequately prepared for the “new normal” of climate change.
The real issue is that perpetually underfunded fire-fighting services are being forced to pull money from their preventative programs to make up for their budget shortfalls. With just one exception, every year since 2002 has resulted in an overdrawn fire budget, leading to less funding for clearing dry brush and conducting controlled burns – essential measures for reducing the damage of fire season.
But that fire season is growing longer every year, further stretching the budget. Seasonal firefighters must be kept on payrolls and fire-fighting facilities must remain in operation. “It’s pretty clear that the physical environment in which we work is changing,” says Jim Douglas, the Director of the Interior’s Office of Wildland Fire. Today, an average per-fire cost is approximately $30,000. However, the biggest fires – about 0.5 percent of total yearly wildfires – account for 30 percent of firefighting costs. The 2012 Chips Fire in California cost $53 million.
Oregon Senator Ron Wyden is currently working on a bill to create emergency funding that would exist outside the usual fire-fighting budget, similar to a billion dollar proposal by the White House to create an emergency fire-fighting fund.
“The way Washington, DC, has fought fire in the last decade is bizarre even by Beltway standards,” Wyden laments. “The bureaucracy steps in and takes a big chunk of money from the already-short prevention fund and uses it to put out the inferno, and then the problem gets worse because the prevention fund has been plundered.”