I’m very skeptical about the latest “wildfire funding fix” included in the omnibus spending bill this year. It won’t kick in until 2020, meaning the Forest Service and related agencies will continue to suffer “fire borrowing,” which is kind of like a loan to your kids — it’s never repaid.
The bill institutionalizes the 2015 wildland firefighting budget, pegging the direct non-discretionary cost of the fire organization at $2 billion for the Forest Service alone, a number that amounts to more than half of the total agency budget. That number is up from about 16 percent in 1995, and it’s not because fires got worse.
The 34 percent that used to go to fuels reduction, thinning, campgrounds, trails, wildlife habitat and all the other programs is wiped away. Shiny new fire engines and huge air tankers took their place. The flow of timber will decline.
It’s not that we don’t need firefighters and equipment. We do. It’s that we didn’t figure out what we need as opposed to what we want. The explanation of the bill provided by The Nature Conservancy is a study in euphemistic government-speak. It’s completely opaque. Presumably, TNC is trying to communicate the impact of the legislation on forests and forestry in plain English. If they are stumped, what are the rest of us to think?
The provisions of the bill are neither plain nor in English. Based on artificial and complex calculations, grabbed out of the air (like the fiction of a 10-year average worst fire season), the bill would hope to stop the erosion of spending on forest management and bring some sanity to the fire spending process.
For example, the Forest Service would have to report to Congress annually about how much they spent and why. Yawn. Nobody reads last year’s news and nobody understands the details anyway, including TNC (which deserves credit for trying).
Fire spending will increase and so will fire damages. Agency spending is only a piece of the puzzle, about 9 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times. Another 35 percent of the costs of fires is from losses of homes, infrastructure, and family aid, for example, and another 65 percent “stem(s) from long-term damages: depreciated property values, reduced property taxes, lost business revenue, infrastructure repair, and degraded ecosystems.”
The number of houses built in the fire zone has risen 41 percent in the last decade as Baby Boomers move back to the land. A short drive around Custer would demonstrate this problem.
No wonder it’s not easy to grasp this issue; there are so many moving parts and most of the costs come after the fires are out.
So, the “wildfire budget fix” is no fix at all. It’s a veil, a shell game, a smoke screen that lets us pretend to be addressing a real problem with a solution that’s much less painful than what we really need to do to address our fatal naivete about our culture: We are willing to accept deadly wildfires, but we are not willing to pass regulations and laws that would actually reduce fire impacts.
County commissioners and city planners hold the keys to requiring building codes to reduce fire damages. Local government and individuals, taking each necessary step to ensure that regulations and ordinances are in place so development can proceed thoughtfully, hold the future of wildfire impacts in our hands.
Recently returned from the chaos and destruction of parts of major cities and communities in California, I can testify that acting now will be far preferable to rebuilding in the ashes. The fires next time will be here.