The cost of fighting large wildfires has forced the U.S. Forest Service to transfer precious funds from other agency programs to cover expenses, leaving little money in the budget to address forest health and hazardous fuels.
But U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said Thursday a new proposal in Congress could see federal emergency disaster funds go to cover a portion of costly megafires, allowing the agency to apply money to other programs aimed at reducing the wildfire danger.
“For the first time in my career, there’s support and agreement that a certain percentage of these megafires need to be considered natural disasters, the same as hurricanes and tornadoes,” Tidwell said. “It will eliminate the need for us to transfer money in the future, and I believe it’s the best approach we’ve come up with.”
Tidwell spoke Thursday morning at the Large Wildland Fires Conference at the University of Montana. More than 600 international fire experts are attending the five-day conference hosted by the International Association of Wildland Fire and the Association for Fire Ecology.
Tidwell said the new proposal has won bipartisan support in both the U.S. House and Senate. If enacted, it could help the Forest Service get ahead of a problem that many experts believe is behind the growing number of megafires in the West, along with climate change.
“In addition to stopping the transfer of funds, (this proposal) has the potential to free up our budget constraints so we can be more proactive to deal with hazardous fuel conditions and restore more acres every year, increasing the resiliency of our forests,” Tidwell said.
In 2012, the Forest Service transferred $440 million from other programs to cover outstanding fire suppression costs and $505 million in 2013. Tidwell said the agency will likely need to transfer between $200 million and $400 million again this year, depending on the severity of the nation’s fire season.
While past efforts aimed at the issue were well intended – including the FLAME Act passed by Congress in 2009 – Tidwell said they relied upon annual appropriations, which have dried up under federal sequestration and failed to address the problem.
“Today our fires are hotter, burning in drier conditions, and we have longer fire seasons,” Tidwell said. “This makes such a significant change in the fire behavior we’re seeing. There’s no indication this is going to shift, and when we talk about an active fire season, that’s the new norm.”
Tidwell spoke briefly on the evolution of the Forest Service and its views on fire, which changed dramatically during the “big blowup” in 1910. The incident put wildfires on the national radar and created a public perception that fire was bad.
But science caught up with the issue and research now shows that fire plays a vital role in healthy forests. But suppression efforts have been perfected with equipment and skilled initial attack crews, which successfully douse 98 percent of all fires before they escape.
Yet those long-term suppression efforts have allowed forest fuels to accumulate to dangerous and unhealthy levels over the years. Combined with a warming climate, it has turned crowded forests into relative tinderboxes. In 2000, Tidwell noted, more than 7 million acres burned, followed by another 8 million in 2004 and 2005. More than 9 million acres burned in 2006, 2007 and 2012.
Early in his career, Tidwell said, a 3-million-acre wildfire season would have been extreme.
“Our experts are predicting that it’s a matter of time when we’re burning 12 million acres of landscapes across this country,” Tidwell said. “The fire behavior we’re seeing today, there’s just no comparison.”
To make his point, Tidwell cited a number of historic fires, including the 2000 Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico, which burned 40,000 acres in seven days. In 2011, the Las Conchas fire started in the same area, terrain and conditions, and burned 40,000 acres in 12 hours, or roughly one acre per second.
Along with the new congressional proposal on the table to free up Forest Service funding to address the problem, Tidwell said his agency has also implemented a cohesive fire strategy.
The three-pronged approach calls for a focus on “risk-based fire management” and creating fire adapted human communities that address fuel loading in the urban interface on private and state lands.
The strategy also calls for an increase in mechanical treatment and prescribed fire to reduce fuels and restore fire adapted landscapes, or the ecosystems that depend upon fire in low doses to thrive.
“We have to put fire back into these ecosystems,” Tidwell said. “At the same time, we also need to be able to use mechanical treatments and timber harvests, treat these areas, and follow up with fire. We need to be strategic but understand the scale.”