WASHINGTON -- Fueled by climate change and the drought out West, wildfires have been getting larger, more destructive and costlier to fight. Yet, the money Congress allocates for fire suppression never seems to be enough.
The U.S. Forest Service -- the primary federal agency responsible for combating wildfires -- has gone over budget in seven of the past 10 years. To pay the soaring costs, the Forest Service and the U.S. Interior Department have had to transfer money from other accounts. Though Congress reimburses the agencies after the fact, the Forest Service says these transfers -- called "fire borrowing" -- hurt its ability to perform other critical work like thinning forests and clearing brush to minimize the risk before the fire season starts.
To avoid such fund shuffling this year, President Barack Obama asked Congress in July for $615 million in emergency money. Congress left for its annual August recess without approving that request.
Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, a 33-year agency employee who assumed the top job in 2009, talked about wildfires and funding issues this week during an interview in his office. Here are the excerpts:
Question: How does this fire season compare to, say, 10 years ago?
Answer: We have 31 uncontained large fires in Idaho, California, Washington, Oregon and Montana. The number of fires compared to the last 10 years is a little bit lower. However, when you look at last year, where we had a very active fire season, we had fewer fires (at) this time than we have today.
We're seeing very large fires. Washington is having the largest wildfire in the history of the state. This tracks with what we've been seeing almost every year. There's a new state record. Last year (it) was California. The year before that it was New Mexico. Arizona two or three years ago set a record.
Q: What's your success rate in fighting these fires?
A: We suppress 98 percent during the initial attack. It's a tremendous accomplishment when you think about the warmer, drier conditions and fire seasons being 60 to 80 days longer than what I saw earlier in my career.
We can attribute this to our skilled workforce, the equipment and also the interagency effort. It's the federal government, the Forest Service, the states, the counties, the local fire departments. It takes all of us working together to be able to have this level of suppression success.
Q: But that means you are unable to contain 2 percent of the fires -- which tend to be catastrophic. Why?
A: Under the right set of conditions, where you have dry (vegetation) and strong winds, no matter how many firefighters, how many engines, how many helicopters, how many aircraft (you deploy), you're not going to be able to suppress that fire -- until it burns into a different type (of vegetation) and the weather conditions change.
If we can, we're going to put the fires out. But if the conditions are such that the fires are moving fast across the landscape, it's not physically possible to stop it.
We're not going to put firefighters out in front of it when there's no chance to stop that fire and it's not safe. We will not put pilots out, flying missions when it's going to be ineffective. All it's doing is putting people at risk.
Q: Democratic and Republican lawmakers say Congress should provide more money to remove "hazardous fuels" -- dead, dying or diseased trees and dense brush. Would that help you contain fires quicker?
A: If we could increase the acres we treat we could reduce the severity and the size of wildfires. We have numerous examples where fires get started (and) escape the initial attack. But when they burn in an area that's been treated -- where we've reduced the fuels, we've thinned out the forests -- the fire gets out of the top of the trees, it gets down on to the ground, and it's easy for our firefighters to stop it.
If we can do more to thin out our forests, reduce hazardous fuels especially around our communities, we can reduce the threat to our communities (and) our firefighters. There's no question we need to be doing more of this.
Q: How many acres do you treat now?
A: Total acreage of the national forests is 193 million acres. We estimate there's about 65 million acres that need some form of treatment and restoration. A lot of that will be done through the use of prescribed fires. But there's also about 12 million acres where we need to use some sort of mechanical treatment -- timber harvests, brush removal -- to restore those forests to a more resilient state so they are less susceptible to fire.
What we've been treating in the past is about between 3 and 4 million acres a year. And with mechanical treatment about 220,000 acres.
Q: Congress didn't approve the White House's $615 million request. Does this mean you have to scale back your firefighting program?
A: It has no effect on our firefighting capabilities. Congress has given us the authority to transfer funds from all of our other programs. What will happen -- which is what has happened in seven out of the last 10 years -- is that we will be transferring funds from other accounts to pay for the cost of fighting fires.
Q: Will you have to tap into the Forest Service's prevention budget again to pay for fire suppression?
A: The reality of the last two years -- and where we'll be headed this year -- is that we have to use almost all the (prevention) funding. There will be projects that were planned (for) September that will have to be postponed or deferred. This is also the time of the year we do a lot of the planning for next year. That planning (won't) get done.
Q: How much money have you had to transfer in to the suppression account over the past couple of years?
A: In fiscal year 2013, we transferred $600 million and we ended up spending $505 (million) of that. The previous year, in fiscal year (2012), it was $440 million. This year, we're going to have to wait and see, but we're going to be notifying Congress, probably next week, that we will be beginning to transfer money to cover the (fire suppression) costs.
Q: You've said it's hard to predict the cost of fighting fires before the season starts. Your scientists provided a range for fiscal year 2014 -- $924 million to $1.61 billion. How do you pick a number out of such a broad range?
A: We use the 10-year average. That's the agreement we have with Congress. For fiscal year 2014, our 10-year average was $995 million just for suppression. Congress always funds the 10-year average.
In most cases, a 10-year average would be a pretty good prediction. But the problem is our fire seasons are longer today and we're seeing warmer, drier conditions, especially driven by the drought we see out west in California and Oregon. So the 10-year average is just isn't working any more for us.
Contact Raju Chebium at email@example.com; Twitter: @rchebium