Nationally, longer fire seasons and more destructive fires have put the Forest Service in a bad place: To pay the cost of fighting mega fires, the agency has had to raid other programs, including its fire prevention budget. Sen. Lisa Murkowski supports a plan to end so-called “fire borrowing.” But Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told her it’s not penciling out as they’d hoped.
Last year, more than half of the Forest Service budget was consumed by wildland fires, up from 16 percent two decades ago. Murkowski and Tidwell both support a new arrangement where Congress will move 30 percent of the fire-fighting expense off the Forest Service budget. If next year’s fire season costs more than Congress appropriates, some fires would be funded as natural disasters.
But looking over the Forest Service’s budget proposal for next year, Murkowski says she doesn’t see the agency making good use of money it no longer needs to keep for emergencies.
“Because As I look at it, you’ve got a decrease in national forest management. Only a very small increase in hazardous fuel reductions,” she said at a hearing of an Appropriations subcommittee that she chairs.
The senator says Alaskans want to see more fire prevention, particularly after the 2014 Funny River fire on the Kenai Peninsula.
“In the wake of the fire, we had 11.3 million acres that were identified as high priority for fuels reduction,” she told him. “Again, folks at home are real concerned about what may be coming with this fire season.”
Tidwell told her they’re treating more acres every year to make them less fire-prone, but “yes there is a backlog out there that I’ve been very clear about.”
Murkowski questioned why the Forest Service wants to spend money on land aquisition, rather using those funds on fuel reduction and forest management.
“Well, (acquisition) is another one of our programs that has tremendous public support,” Tidwell said.
The Forest Service wants $66 million for land acquisition next year. That’s small compared to the nearly $400 million it’s seeking for hazardous fuels reduction, but Murkowski says it doesn’t make sense for the agency to buy more land when it can’t take care of what it has.
The real budget culprit, Tidwell says, is the ever-increasing cost of fighting fires. When they began trying to move some firefighting expenses out of the forest service budget two years ago, the chief said, they both assumed it would free up money for other programs.
“But what’s happened over the past two years is that cost of fire suppression, as it’s gone up, it’s basically eliminated that potential savings,” he said.
One reason for the growing cost is the longer fire season, and, when asked by one of the Democratic senators, Tidwell says he knows the cause.
“Climate change,” he said. “It’s just that we have our weather — it’s hotter and dryer and what we’re seeing is it’s warming up earlier in the spring and it stays warmer later into the falls. Where it used to be (that) come Labor Day, we were pretty much out of the fire season, and any more it goes way past Labor Day,” he said.
This month’s fire outlook for Southcentral Alaska also suggests an early start to fire season. With the low snowpack, forecasters say the risk of wildland fire is already above normal for the Anchorage Bowl and the Kenai Peninsula and will remain elevated until June.