New report projects wildfire costs to nearly double in Colorado and Western States in the next 10 years

Source(s): Center for American Progress

Washington, D.C. — A new report from the Center for American Progress projects that the U.S. Forest Service will have to spend 80 percent more per year over the next decade to fight wildfires in Colorado and other Western states, compared with the past five years. Based on historic data and trends, wildfires could burn an average of 10.5 million acres nationally per year between 2015 and 2024, up from 6.8 million acres per year between 2005 and 2014.

The report notes that several factors are contributing to the growth in the size and cost of wildfires in the West—including the construction of more homes in wildfire-prone areas and the legacy of past forest management policies—but that many members of Congress are ignoring or denying the role that climate change is playing in shifting wildfire patterns. According to the National Climate Assessment and the U.S. Forest Service, climate change is contributing to longer, hotter, and more dangerous wildfire seasons in much of the West.

“To confront the growing size and severity of wildfires in the West, congressional leaders need to understand and acknowledge the impacts of climate change and take action to address its causes,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, Senior Fellow at CAP and co-author of the report. “Congress’ current head-in-the-sand approach is contributing to bad budgeting, ineffective policymaking, and growing costs to Western communities.”

The report, which was co-authored by CAP Economist Michael Madowitz, projects that the federal government will have to spend an average of $2.8 billion per year to fight wildfires between 2015 and 2024, up from $1.7 billion per year over the past decade. In California alone, the Forest Service could spend an average of $533 million per year to fight fires over the next decade, up from $295 million per year between 2010 and 2014.

Congress has failed to adjust its budget policies to adapt to the reality that wildfires are growing larger and more expensive to fight. As a consequence, federal agencies run out of money in their suppression budgets during severe wildfire seasons, forcing them to raid other programs, including fire prevention and mitigation efforts, in order to pay firefighting costs. In 7 of the past 10 years, the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior have had to spend more on wildfire suppression than Congress has budgeted, forcing the agencies to transfer funds from fire prevention, mitigation and non-fire programs.

The report recommends that Congress fix this problem by adopting a bipartisan budget reform proposal that would allow federal agencies to treat the most catastrophic 1 percent to 2 percent of wildfires as natural disasters, which would enable agencies to access emergency disaster funding and avoid the need to raid other accounts. The report also recommends that Congress explore policies to mitigate the risks of wildfires and take action to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

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