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Fighting California's fires burns brush, and big bucks

The Warm Fire near Warm Springs Road and Lake Hughes Road in Castaic.
The Warm Fire near Warm Springs Road and Lake Hughes Road in Castaic.

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California's firefighters are currently battling 16 active wildfires as of Monday. The biggest, the Jerusalem, is mostly under control.

But others are still raging, like the Cabin fire, just 15 miles from Pasadena, which as of Sunday night was only 60 percent contained. 

It's stretching resources to breaking point. This year, for the first time ever, the U.S. Forest Service dedicated more than half of its budget to fighting wildfires, and a new report estimates that in the next decade, 2 out of every 3 Forest Service dollars will be spent fighting the ever-growing number of fires in the West. 

Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment at the USDA, says fire seasons across the country are now 80 days longer than they were 30 years ago. This, combined with more homes being built near forests, and voila -- fires are now more expensive to fight.

"Instead of being able to put in a line to fight the fire where Cal Fire or the Forest Service would want to, we have to do point protection, where we want to obviously always protect people and lives," he said. "It requires more equipment, it requires more people, more aircraft, those types of things."

The fires themselves are also bigger, which contributes to the cost, Bonnie added. This means other areas have suffered, like recreation, research and the kind of forest management that would help prevent these fires in the first place.

"The problem with fire is that we treat it as a normal, everyday expense," he said. "We really should treat fires more like disaster."

Bonnie says there is one silver lining: There are proposals in the president's budget and a bipartisan proposal in Congress that would help designate fires as disasters.

To listen to the full interview, click on the blue audio player above.