Report Shows Rapid Increase in Cost of Fighting Forest Fires Over Last 20 Years

On August 20, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a new report showing that while the cost of fighting forest fires has rapidly increased over the last 20 years, the budgets for other forest programs, including those that can help prevent and mitigate fire damage, have substantially shrunk. The Forest Service’s firefighting appropriation has rapidly risen as a proportion of the Forest Service’s overall budget, increasing from 16 percent in 1995 to 42 percent today, forcing cuts in other budget areas.

According to a chart on page 2 of the report comparing the growth of the Forest Service’s firefighting versus non-firefighting expenditures between 1995 and 2014, the fire suppression share of the Forest Service’s budget has grown over 14 times more rapidly than non-suppression share. The report also shows how funding for activities like vegetation and watershed management and capital improvement and maintenance have been cut in recent years.

In a conference call with stakeholder groups and the press, Secretary Vilsack noted that on top of the budget reductions outlined in the new report, the Forest Service’s non-fire programs budgets are affected by “fire borrowing.” Funds spent on fire suppression have exceeded the allocated amount in all but four years since 2000. In these cases, the shortfall is covered through transferring, or “borrowing,” additional funds from other Forest Service programs.

Secretary Vilsack renewed his request to Congress to allow an existing disaster fund to provide resources to fight catastrophic fires in years when Forest Service and Department of Interior fire costs exceed the amount Congress has budgeted, rather than forcing borrowing from non-fire programs. The NVFC supports the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (S. 1875/H.R. 3992), which would fulfill Secretary Vilsack’s request by funding a portion of federal wildfire suppression costs through a budget cap adjustment similar to the budget cap exemption currently in use by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).