For the second year in a row, the Forest Service has exhausted its entire budget for fighting fires, according to the Washington Post.
The news comes as wildfires rage across the West, including the Rim fire in California near Yosemite National Park, which has so far burned 160,980 acres and is only 20 percent contained, according to the Forest Service's Active Fire Map.
According to the Post, nearly 3 million acres have burned in the United States so far this year. As of last week, the Forest Service had spent $967 million of the firefighting budget, leaving only $50 million in the budget for the rest of the year. Because of the shortfall, the Forest Service will need to divert $600 million from other funds, some of which were meant to go to fire prevention efforts.
“I recognize that this direction will have significant effects on the public, whom we serve, and on our many valuable partners,” as well as on the agency’s ability to manage forests, Forest Service Fire Chief Thomas L. Tidwell said in an Aug. 16 letter to regional foresters, station directors and deputy chiefs. “I regret that we have to take this action and fully understand that it only increases costs and reduces efficiency.”
The Post reports that prior to 2001, a season with more than 5 million acres burned was a rarity, and wildfire season generally ran from June to September. But since that time, changing climate conditions have brought more dryness and drought, expanding the season from May to October. Critics say given this reality, budgeting for fighting wildfires has been shortsighted.
"When we have emergencies burning, the U.S. government will continue to spend money on firefighting, even if they don't have the money," said Christopher Topik, director of the Restoring America's Forests project for The Nature Conservancy, an environmental group, in a July Associated Press report. "So then they'll take it out of these other kinds of accounts, which are the ones that actually reduce the risk. That's what will end up happening, and that's not a good policy."
The federal spending cuts known as sequestration have also hurt the Forest Service's budget. According to an Associated Press report, sequestration cut the firefighting budget by 5 percent, eliminating 500 firefighters and 50 wildland fire engines this year.