Last summer, Planet Experts reported that wildfires in the US are getting bigger and costlier. This summer, the situation has only gotten worse.
As the National Interagency Fire Center notes, the number of fires in 2015 so far is actually below average for the decade, yet higher in area burned by about two million acres. Nearly six million acres of United States land has burned so far, and all but a million of that in Alaska alone.
On Wednesday, the US Forest Service released a report on the rising cost of wildfires and its impact on their non-fire work. Global warming, according to the agency, is lengthening the overall fire season and forcing the USFS to divert funds for other priorities – such as wildfire prevention and forest restoration – into immediate wildfire emergencies.
“With a warming climate, fire seasons are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970,” the report states. “The U.S. burns twice as many acres as three decades ago and Forest Service scientists believe the acreage burned may double again by mid-century.”
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack oversees the USFS and told The Washington Post, “I think we’re at the tipping point, where over half of the Forest Service budget is used for fire.”
California blew through its wildfire budget in just the first three months of the fiscal year. The Golden State, where a four-year drought has forced the Governor to enact mandatory water restrictions for the first time in its history, is perhaps the most prominent to be ravaged by warming temperatures. In a year of unprecedented warming across the globe, 2014 was ultimately the hottest in California history. The lack of water has also struck a blow to its agricultural industry, which is expected to lose $2.7 billion this year.
But California is not the only state to be affected by the drought. The entire northwestern United States is drying up. In Washington, the wettest rainforest in the continental US has been on fire since May. In January and February, temperatures on Olympic National Park’s Hurricane Ridge were over six degrees Fahrenheit above average.
According to the USFS report, the six worst fire seasons on record (since 1960) have all occurred since 2000. It is no coincidence that, with the exception of 1998, the 10 warmest years on record have also all occurred since 2000 (Source: NASA).
Unfortunately, Vilsack told The Washington Post, until the government is willing to treat massive fires as natural disasters – as hurricanes and floods currently are – “you’re never going to get ahead of this.”
The USFS has many more duties to perform than just fighting fires but, with 67 percent of its funding projected to be fire-related by 2025, it is losing its ability to adequately pay for its staff, expenses and other essential forest upkeep.
“The way Washington, DC, has fought fire in the last decade is bizarre even by Beltway standards,” Oregon Senator Ron Wyden said last year. “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.”
Environmentalists and western politicians alike are calling for changes to how fire funds are allocated. After a decade of rising temperatures and costlier fires, it is also difficult for anyone on the ground to dispute that the climate is changing. “We are seeing larger fires and more of them,” said Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University.
California Governor Jerry Brown put it in even blunter language, which he directed specifically at several presidential candidates who dispute the science of climate change. “I can tell you, from California, climate change is not a hoax,” he said on ABC’s This Week in April. “We’re dealing with it and it’s damn serious.”