Turning up the Heat: How Wildfires in the West Are Straining Budgets and Communities

This fall, wildfires have been dotting the United States. Cash-strapped state and federal agencies are desperately trying to combat the fire-wrought destruction, while astronauts helplessly watch gargantuan clouds of smoke waft over the nation. In Montana, firefighters are tirelessly battling 15 large wildfires, squeezing their state’s fire suppression budget. In California, officials have declared a state of emergency in response to fires that have destroyed countless farms, homes, and historic structures. In Seattle, the rainy weather and overcast skies of spring gave way to a suffocating, smoky, summer haze due to fires.

Wildfires and wildfire seasons wreak havoc for American communities. The ravages of wildfires are multidimensional: the blazes disrupt both the health of the populace and the budgets of local and federal agencies. And their costs are only growing.

Wildfires do real harm to population health. While direct fatalities are rare, wildfires do damage more indirectly. When forests erupt in flame, acres of foliage are reduced to smoke. The resulting plumes include carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and other greenhouse gases. These clouds are lofted into the air by convection and blown over expansive tracts of land. Unlike the wilderness where the fire was burning, these areas the clouds are blown to can be heavily populated. According to the National Resources Defense Council, in 2011, “212 million people lived in counties affected by smoke conditions.”

For these populations, the smoke wafting over their homes is far from harmless. In addition to anecdotal accounts of burning eyes and worsened breathing, scientists at Harvard found preliminary evidence that wildfire smoke exacerbated respiratory conditions such as asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder. These respiratory conditions can then result in fatalities. A study in Southern California found evidence that one wildfire season resulted in “69 premature deaths, 778 hospitalizations, 1,431 emergency room visits, and 47,605 outpatient visits, mostly for respiratory and cardiovascular health problems aggravated by smoke exposure.” The growing body of evidence has led state and federal agencies to advise effected regions to avoid physical exertion outdoors and to take precautions to seal their homes.

Evidence about the health effects of wildfires is often imperfect. But the financial costs of wildfires is clear and present. At both the state and federal level, the recent uptick in wildfires has depleted agency budgets. These increased expenditures have forced Congress to reallocate larger sums for wildfire prevention to the United States Forest Service and Department of Interior. From 1991 to 1995, Congress appropriated about $1.39 billion (2012 dollars) annually for fire protection. But between 2002 and 2012, annual firefighting budgets ticked up to an average of $3.51 billion a year. Despite steady funding increases, the provided appropriations were consistently insufficient, so the Forest Service has started regularly drawing emergency funds from other programs, including wildlife habitat and recreational projects: from 2008 to 2013, $2.7 billion was pulled from these initiatives. On top of this, other agencies, like FEMA, contribute millions in disaster relief and rehabilitation costs each wildfire season.

A substantial majority of large wildfires do occur on federal lands, and thus are under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service. However, a significant number of large fires occur on land owned by states, pushing these states’ budgets to their limits. In 2010, for example, wildfire programs cost states $1.43 billion.

This year, Northwestern states, especially Montana, have been caught off guard. Montana’s $32.5 million budget for firefighting was quickly drained this season: As of early September, the state had spent upwards of $53.7 million fighting wildfires. To sustain the effort, resources have been pulled from the Department of Natural Resources budget.

The year 2017 stands out as a particularly bad year for firefighting, and agencies across the country are draining their budgets at a faster pace than usual. This fire season, more than 8 million acres in the US have gone up in flames. For comparison, in the past 10 years, the average was under 6 million, and from 1990 to 1999, the average was 3 million.

The culprits are 49,840 individual wildfires, primarily in the West, up from 43,695 last year. Unfortunately, 2017 is not an exception. Large fires appear to be increasing in frequency. This year, while an especially bad year for wildfires, is only a continuation of recent trends.

Much of the increase in wildfires can be chalked up to increasing droughts: Without rain, the fires burn longer and have more dry fuel to burn. This relationship between drought and wildfires does not bode well. Climate models predict that as a result of climate change and in conjunction with natural forces, Americans should expect a dramatic surge in drought over the next 30 years. In turn, they can expect more wildfires and more inadequate fire budgets – unless funding priorities drastically change.

However, wildfires are caused by more than drought. Wildfires are a natural occurrence, and their regular appearance in various regions is a critical dynamic of the ecosystem, clearing small foliage and creating nutrient-rich soil. When humans disrupt these cycles, through either suppression of small fires or by grazing animals, they change the ratio of small to large foliage. There is evidence that, over time, this can make regions more flammable, as small plants that burn at low-intensity are replaced by a growing amount of larger, higher burn intensity flora.

While numerous factors facilitate more sizable and frequent wildfires that require expensive responses, others induce more preventative costs. The growing Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) may be having the greatest impact of all. The WUI is the intersection of dense population areas with wildlands and, over the past decades, it has exploded: Between 2000 and 2030, forecasts project the size of the WUI will increase 111 percent in the West, 93 percent in Southeast, and 44 percent in the rest of the mainland United States.

Upon reaching the WUI, forest fires become threats to large population centers. A larger WUI means that threats will become more frequent. Given the potential human costs, these threats warrant serious response. To contend with the fire risk, federal and state agencies have instituted expensive fuel reduction programs, clearing foliage from populated areas bordering wildlands. These programs, and fire suppression that prioritizes private property, put more strain on already-strained budgets. As wildfires become more intense, and the WUI continues to grow at an exponential rate, these costs will skyrocket. However, even with the hefty investments already being made, thousands of buildings in the WUI are destroyed each year.

The number of large wildfires, the length of the wildfire season, and the size of populations in high-risk fire environments are all climbing. Given these current trends, both state and federal agencies must proactively reallocate appropriations to fighting wildfires. Investing in better prevention and more effective response is the only way to address the fires sweeping across the nation. Without such action, we will be unable to control the wildlands’ rampaging infernos, and smoky skies may become the norm.