Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell met May 17 with Forest Service Regional Foresters to discuss preparations for anticipated significant wildland fire potential in 2016. The briefing comes as the 2016 fire season has begun with five times more acres already burned than this time last year, following 2015's record-setting fire season.
"The 2016 wildfire season is off to a worrisome start. Southern California, the Great Basin in Nevada, portions of the southwest, and even Florida and Hawaii are particularly vulnerable this year. In California, more than 40 million trees have died, becoming dry fuel for wildfire," said Vilsack. "Congress must take action now to ensure that we, and, ultimately the firefighters we ask so much of, have the resources to do the restoration and wildfire prevention work necessary to keep our forests healthy."
Forest Service Chief Tidwell underscored the Forest Service's commitment to ensuring the protection of firefighters' lives. Last year, seven members of the Forest Service firefighting team were lost in the line of duty, and 4,500 homes were damaged or destroyed. This year the Forest Service is able to mobilize 10,000 firefighters, 900 engines, 300 helicopters, 21 airtankers, 2 water scoopers and over 30 aerial supervision fixed-wing aircraft. Together with federal, state and local partners, the agency is positioned to respond wherever needed.
"The job of fighting wildfires has become increasingly difficult due to the effects of climate change, chronic droughts and development within Wildland-Urban Interface areas," said Tidwell. "We must do what is necessary to ensure we have the resources to perform restoration and wildfire prevention work essential to keep our forests healthy."
Climate change has led to fire seasons that are, on average, 78 days longer than they were in 1970 and, on average, the number of acres burned each year has doubled since 1980. As a result, the Forest Service's firefighting budget is regularly exhausted before the end of the wildfire season, forcing the Forest Service to abandon critical restoration and capital improvement projects in order to suppress extreme fires.
The cost of the Forest Service's wildfire suppression reached a record $243 million in a one-week period during the height of suppression activity in August 2015. With a record 52 percent of the Forest Service's budget dedicated to fire suppression activities, compared to just 16 percent in 1995, the Forest Service's firefighting budget was exhausted in 2015, forcing USDA to transfer funds away from forest restoration projects that would help reduce the risk of future fires, in order to cover the high cost of battling blazes.
Last December Vilsack told members of Congress that he will not authorize transfers from restoration and resilience funding this fire season. Instead, Vilsack has directed the Forest Service to use funds as they were intended. For example, restoration work through programs like the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program and implementation of the National Cohesive Strategy, are reducing the size and severity of wildfires. USDA, the U.S. Department of the Interior and other partners are working with at-risk communities to promote community and homeowner involvement in mitigating wildfire risk, reducing hazardous fuels and accomplishing treatments that increase forest health and resilience.
"We keep setting records we don't want to see beat. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, over the last 10 years we've seen 16 of the most historically significant wildfires on record," said Vilsack. "Only focused prevention and forest restoration work can help us turn the corner, so I have directed the Forest Service to aggressively use the funding provided in the 2016 Fiscal Year budget to support forest management, restoration, research, and partnership work to help get ahead of the severe wildfire problem and to focus on providing other services that the American public expects from the Forest Service."
Even a so-called normal year is far worse than it used to be. On average, wildfires burn twice as much land area each year as they did 40 years ago and the threat continues to increase.
Over the last two years, $237 million has been permanently shifted from the Forest Service non-fire budget forcing the department to abandon critical restoration and capital improvement projects in order to suppress extreme fires. This loss in funds to firefighting took place before a single fire broke out in 2016.
For the first time in its 111-year history, over half of the Forest Service's 2015 budget was designated to fight wildfires, compared to just 16 percent in 1995. 2015 was the most expensive fire season in the department's history, costing more than $2.6 billion on fire alone.
The mission of the U.S. Forest Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation's forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners, and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world. Public lands managed by the Forest Service contribute more than $13 billion to the economy each year through visitor spending alone. Those same lands provide 20 percent of the nation's clean water supply, a value estimated at $7.2 billion per year. The agency has either a direct or indirect role in stewardship of about 80 percent of the 850 million forested acres within the U.S., of which 100 million acres are urban forests where most Americans live.