Environment & Science

Forest Service has a plan to stop the burn — at least financially

Wildfire creeps burns on the south side of Dry Creek Canyon at the Partrick Fire west of Napa, California on October 12, 2017.
Wildfire creeps burns on the south side of Dry Creek Canyon at the Partrick Fire west of Napa, California on October 12, 2017.
David McNew/Getty Images

President Trump’s $1.3 billion federal spending bill includes a provision intended to keep the U.S. Forest Service from raiding its forest management and fire prevention budgets to fight wildland fires.

Wildland firefighting is expensive. Last year was the Forest Service’s most expensive year on record, costing more than $2 billion.

When the Forest Service overspends its firefighting budget, it dips into other accounts. Last year, firefighting consumed $527 million from other Forest Service accounts like forest thinning. While the money is generally paid back that borrowing can set off a destructive cycle.

When forests grow too thick, they produce more fuel, making fires more destructive. They are also more vulnerable to beetle infestations that kill trees and add to the dry fuel load.

Thinning projects planned for the Angeles and San Bernardino national forests were delayed due to the transfers, the Forest Service said. 

The federal spending bill signed by the president last week makes an important change. It raises the cap on federal Forest Service spending on firefighting. That higher cap is expected to protect the budget set aside for forest maintenance and tree-thinning from raids for firefighting funds.

Firefighting consumes about 56 percent the U.S. Forest Service budget and it’s expected to use about two-thirds by 2020, according to talking points used by proponents of the funding shift.

Last year, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue asked Congress to change Forest Service funding to keep the agency from raiding accounts that should be paying for fire prevention. When forests grow too thick, they make fires hotter and more destructive. Thick forests, where more trees have to share a limited rainfall supply, are more susceptible to insect infestation, like the bark beetles that damaged forests in San Bernardino County.

Purdue said that with more funding for forest management, the frequency and severity of wildfires could be reduced.

The new funding structure takes effect in 2020 and extends for eight years. Fire suppression for each of those years is set at $1.011 billion, but may extend up to a cap of $2.5 billion in the first year. That cap rises by $100 million each year to $2.95 billion by 2027.

The higher amount allocated for wildland firefighting, in theory, is supposed to keep the Forest Service from tapping other funds, like the one for forest management.

A change that the Forest Service wanted but failed to get is to let federal disaster emergency funds be used for firefighting, just as they have been used in past years to respond to earthquake and hurricanes. That was not in the appropriations bill signed last week.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.