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May 15, 2014
Fire-fighting agencies may need to borrow

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Department of Interior (DOI)—the two federal agencies responsible for responding to wildfires on public land—expect that their collective fire-fighting budget of $1.4 billion this season can be up to $400 million short of what will be needed.  If the prediction is correct, the agencies will be forced to borrow money from other programs—called fire borrowing—to ensure that adequate fire-response resources are available.  Both departments have had to resort to fire borrowing in 7 of the last 12 years.

Longer season

The annual fire season in the United States generally covers April to July, which represents a 60- to 80-day increase over the last 3 decades.  During that period, the annual acreage burned has also more than doubled to about 7 million acres.  The USFS manages 193 million acres of public land.  According to the agencies, drought exacerbated by climate change has contributed significantly to the growth of wildfires.  Government protection of the increasing number of people who are living in forest areas affected by fires has been one factor in the rising cost of firefighting.  Most fires on public land occur in the West, with the exception of Alaska, where very few fires burn on public land and hence, very little is spent on suppression.

Estimation model

Under the 2009 Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act, both the USFS and the DOI are required to produce forecasts of annual fire suppression expenditures three times during each fiscal year—March, May, and July.  The forecasts are based on complex models the USFS developed as a system of equations.  Each of the 10 equations contained in the current modeling system represents a statistical relationship between historical expenditures and a set of predictor variables—including drought, ocean temperatures, and ocean pressures—for a particular USFS region.  The 2014 suppression expenditures are forecast to range, with 80 percent confidence, between $1.287 billion and $1.879 billion, say the agencies.

Firefighters doubled

According to the agencies, fire borrowing takes funding away from forest management activities such as mechanical thinning and controlled burns that reduce both the incidence and severity of wildfires.  In addition to fire borrowing, over the last 2 decades, the USFS has had to shift more and more money to firefighting, thereby reducing foresters and other staff by over 30 percent and more than doubling the number of firefighters, the agencies add.

In its 2015 budget proposal, the Obama administration requested a special disaster relief cap adjustment for use when costs of fighting fires exceed the USFS/DOI budgets.  According to the agencies, the proposal tracks closely with legislation authored by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mike Crapo (R-ID) and Representatives Mike Simpson (R-ID) and Kurt Schrader (D-OR).

May 2014 forecast

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