As wildfires rage across California, the stories of lives, homes, and businesses lost are emerging from the ashes. It’s devastating and hard to fathom how, yet again, we are at the mercy of Mother Nature. There’s no predicting these natural disasters, but we can be aware of vast swaths of dry tinder and prepare our communities with ample resources should disaster strike. That is where legislation reform comes into play.
In outdoor-tourism towns across the country, the threat of wildfires looms large. The damage wrought by the fire and the insurmountable costs of fire suppression can be crippling. Many rural towns depend on healthy forests and outdoor tourism to support local economies, so a wildfire could burn zero structures but still wipe out a community’s economy for years. In July of 2016, the Sobranes Fire burned 132,00 acres along California’s central coast near popular Big Sur State Park. 57 structures burned and at its peak 5,000 personnel were assigned to the blaze. It cost over $260 million in suppression efforts alone, making it the most expensive wildfire in US history to date.
THE ECONOMICS OF WILDFIRE
It’s not cheap to fight a fire. The cost of wildfire suppression today is around five times greater than it was in the 1980s. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 2015 was the most expensive year on record for fire suppression with spending topped over $2 billion dollars. For comparison, the average cost of fire suppression from 1985 to 1995 was about $400 million.
Why? Because fires are getting much bigger. According to a recent United States Forest Service’s report, the six worst fire seasons on record have all occurred since the turn of the century, with most western states experiencing the largest wildfires in state history since 2000.
Federal land agencies under the Department of Agriculture (including USFS) and Department of the Interior are burning through their budgets to fight these massive wildfires. In 1995, wildfire costs made up 16% of the Forest Service’s annual budget. In 2015, however, wildfire costs made up 50% of the funds allocated for fire (including education, trail management, and prevention programs).
The rising cost of wildfires perpetuates a downward spiral in which fire agencies are forced to spend their prevention budget on suppression efforts, leaving nothing in the tank to mitigate future disasters. Once the fire suppression bills are payed, many of these communities have to piece together a new economic infrastructure and way of life – this time without the aid outdoor tourism. The struggle can sometimes be too much for a community to overcome.
THE POTENTIAL IMPACT OF LEGISLATION
The Trump Administration has proposed even more cuts to important land management agencies in its 2018 budget. These cuts include -11% to the Department of the Interior and unspecified cuts to the US Forest Service. These cuts come at a time when land management agencies are in dire need of more funding to mitigate the severe consequences of wildfire.
“A broken fire funding system takes money from the rest of the USFS and DOI budgets, which greatly impacts towns surrounded by public land,” said Diana Madson, Executive Director of the Mountain Pact, a nonprofit that advocates for mountain towns impacted by climate change and works on wildfire funding reform.
A bipartisan bill to reform wildfire funding was reintroduced to Congress on June 8, 2017, a move welcomed by the Mountain Pact, the Nature Conservancy, and other prominent environmental organizations. House Resolution 2862, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2017, would change how the federal government funds the suppression of large wildfires, making the process more in line with how other natural disasters are funded. It is similar to the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2015, which had 150 bipartisan cosponsors in both the House and Senate but unfortunately did not go to vote before the congressional session ended.
“Wildfire funding reform is critical for the economic and environmental vitality of Western mountain communities,” said Madson. “This bill would not only provide emergency relief funding to protect our communities from more frequent and severe wildfires, but it would also significantly reduce impacts on programs that support recreation infrastructure on federal lands – the crux of our local economies.”
While this is good news, there’s a lot of work to be done to ensure that funding reform is pushed through.
Help Those in Need
Many of the people effected by the Sonoma County fires in California have been left with close to nothing. There are efforts in place to help those in need, and you can make monetary donations to a number of GoFundMe campaigns: Napa and Sonoma County fire Relief,Redwood Employees Impacted by Fires, and Fire Relief Napa and Sonoma Counties. If you have goods to donate, the Sonoma County Fire Department has drafted a google doc to help sort out where your donations will have the biggest impact. When it comes to natural disasters, we are all in this together.
Originally written by RootsRated for RootsRated Media, with updates by Toad&Co.