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Our Turn: A smarter way to pay for wildfires

  • A firefighter works to put out a blaze early Tuesday in Santa Paula, Calif. Authorities said the fire broke out Monday and grew wildly in the hours that followed, consuming vegetation that hasn’t burned in decades. Ventura County Fire Department via AP

  • A firefighter holds a water hose while fighting a wildfire on Oct. 14 in Santa Rosa, Calif. AP



For the Monitor
Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Battling large wildfires across our country takes a toll in New Hampshire, even if those fires don’t often hit close to home.

At a price tag of more than $2.4 billion so far this year, the federal government has spent more money fighting fires this year than any other wildfire season on record. In 2017, fires have already burned through more than 8 million acres of American land – an area bigger than the size of Maryland.

Catastrophic fires are happening more and more often, as increasingly extreme weather patterns lead to bigger fires. More people now live near fire-prone forests, too, so firefighting costs are going up year after year. Each new season is proving to be anything but average.

In the mid-1990s, fire suppression constituted approximately 16 percent of the Forest Service budget; today, it accounts for more than 50 percent.

The current method to pay for fighting these fires means federal agencies are forced to pay for increased wildfire suppression costs by drawing resources away from their conservation, land management and local partnership responsibilities.

While earthquakes, floods and other disaster relief operations use emergency funds for damages and recovery, wildfire disasters are paid for directly from the budgets of federal agencies. The size and scale of these fires continue to drain needed resources from the U.S. Forest Service budget, impacting public and private lands across the nation, including the White Mountain National Forest right here in New Hampshire.

In fact, as a result of the way we currently pay for wildfires, the recreation budget for the White Mountain National Forest has been reduced by 5 percent each year over the past seven years, and the trails budget has decreased by 34 percent in the last two years. The loss of budgeted revenue to the Forest Service results in deferred maintenance – a real issue for a tourist destination with 6 million visitors each year.

While the need to fight fires to save lives and property is understandable, it means agencies borrow money from programs like recreation and forest health to make up budget shortfalls. But it’s that conservation and land management work – such as restoring forests and removing brush – that helps reduce the risk of fire in the first place.

We applaud Gov. Chris Sununu and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, who recently sent a joint letter to Congress seeking a permanent solution to this wildfire funding transfer. We agree with the governors that Congress should provide adequate funding for fire suppression, and permanently change the way the United States pays to fight wildfires. Congress needs to treat wildfires like the disasters they are and make disaster funding accessible for federal firefighting efforts.

It doesn’t make sense to have firefighting come at the expense of projects that would conserve our forests and make our lands healthier and less fire prone in the first place.

We need to break out of this cycle, and Congress holds the keys to a solution.

We thank Congresswomen Carol Shea-Porter and Ann McLane Kuster for joining a bipartisan group of lawmakers as co-sponsors of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which seeks to find a permanent solution to this growing problem. We hope that Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan will support similar legislation that was introduced this fall in the Senate. These approaches are a great idea, and they can’t be enacted soon enough.

We know that firefighting costs are going to continue to rise. And under the government’s current funding structure, the U.S. can’t keep up.

We are encouraged to see that Govs. Sununu and Scott have raised their voices urging Congress to take action on this important issue. We hope other governors will follow their lead.

We need to not only fight wildfires, but also fund needed conservation programs across the country. And we need to keep our forests healthy to prevent fires – and protect our land, property and people in New Hampshire and across America.

(Brad Simpkins is the director of Forests and Lands at the New Hampshire Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Mark Zankel is the state director for the Nature Conservancy in New Hampshire.)