'We're not going to solve it in one fire season'
The Forest Service will have the money it needs to reduce the threat of fire to Western communities in the face of longer fire seasons, warmer summers and drier landscapes.
It couldn't come at a more opportune time.
Dry conditions and hot temperatures are forecast for much of the West this summer, including southern Idaho, said Jeremy Sullens, a wildfire analyst at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.
Congressmen from Idaho and Oregon came together at the center Tuesday to celebrate the passage of a law that will soon treat wildfire spending like any other natural disaster.
"This is probably the most important bill about the Forest Service in the last 50 years," said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.
He, Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, and Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden have pushed for seven years to fix the Forest Service's funding conundrum. Previously, the agency had to halt trail maintenance, planning, thinning and even fire prevention work each year when it ran out of money to fight fires. This so-called "fire borrowing" has prevented the agency from doing the very treatments that would reduce the flames' impact on local communities.
"What we are now doing is liberating scarce funds to focus on fire prevention," said Wyden. "The reality is these fires are getting bigger. They're getting more powerful."
The West is just half a year removed from the latest example of such power: Northern California's Tubbs Fire, which tore through entire neighborhoods and killed more than 40 people in October.
At $2.4 billion, 2017 was the costliest U.S. fire season ever — not counting the more than 6,000 burned homes and other buildings, and the dozens of people killed. And that means something after more than 30 years of rising costs and increasingly large, damaging fires. The costs are expected to continue to rise as climate change makes conditions hotter and drier across the country.
"We're fighting fires nearly every single day of the year in the United States," Sullens said.
Specifically, the congressional fix will provide slightly more than $1 billion a year in fire suppression funds for the Forest Service — the funding level the agency saw in 2015. Anything beyond that will come from the budget that covers other natural disasters, such as hurricanes and floods.
The fire fix won't actually take effect until 2020. For now, Congress approved an additional $500 million above its regular firefighting allocation for 2018 — making it $1.5 billion — to get the Forest Service on the path back toward normal operations. Acting Chief Vickie Christiansen told Congress she will have a plan out within weeks to reduce her agency's backlog of logging, thinning, fuel treatment and prescribed fires, all meant to reduce the threat from wildfires.
The legislation was part of an omnibus spending bill that cleared Congress in March. Another section allows the Forest Service to authorize road work to help logging projects it does through the Good Neighbor program, where states like Idaho put sales together and sell the timber from Forest Service lands. Christiansen said Wednesday that 17,000 acres in Idaho have already been treated.
The key, she said, is for western communities to adjust to the rising risk. Residents must reduce fuels in and around their homes, and communities must address their growth into forest and rangeland areas.
Researchers estimate there are 44 million homes next to these lands at risk of wildfire. They conclude we have to have more planned fires, along with logging and thinning, if we are to get the costs of wildfire fighting under control.
"If we can treat 40 percent of the landscape, we can see our suppressed costs stabilize or go down," Christiansen told the NIFC crowd.
That's a tall order for an agency that manages 193 million acres, including 20 percent of Idaho. But more than half of southern Idaho's forests have already burned over the last 30 years, giving the agency a start.
"It's taken 30 years to get here in what was not adequate management in place," Crapo said. "We're not going to solve it in one fire season."
In fact, it will take years. But Crapo is hopeful we and the landscape can change.
"We are going to get to the point where fire is the servant and not the manager in these ecosystems," he said.