For the first time, the U.S. Forest Service says more than half its budget is being spent to prepare for and fight wildfires. In 1995, it was just over 15 percent. By 2025, firefighting is projected to take up nearly 70 percent of the agency's budget.
In a new report, the agency says it's at a tipping point. It wants catastrophic fires like Arizona's Wallow and Rodeo-Chediski blazes to be treated as natural disasters and funded in the same way as hurricanes and tornado recoveries.
The report says the six worst fire seasons since 1960 have all occurred since 2000, including the Wallow and Rodeo-Chediski fires. Those fires not only forced tens of thousands from their homes, but they also cost more than $140 million to fight. As fires eat up more of the agency's budget, there is less money for other projects, including fire prevention efforts, building repairs and campground maintenance.
U.S. Sen. John McCain (R) Arizona tells us it's "inexcusable" that Congress has not acted. McCain, along with fellow Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake (R) introduced legislation earlier this year to allow full funding of wildland firefighting budgets. Another piece of legislation, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, has bipartisan and Forest Service support, and has been introduced in the House and Senate.
"We'll get it done, I would imagine," McCain said. "Right now the problem is not funding; the problem right now is fires that are fed by a lack of forest thinning. Forest thinning is one of the major reasons you get so much heat, and it causes devastation, and also the drought we're in."
The Forest Service report says climate change has led to fire seasons that are an average of 78 days longer than in 1970. The agency says the U.S. burns twice as many acres as three decades ag. Last year the Forest Service's 10 biggest fires cost taxpayers more than $320 million.
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