When wildfires strike, firefighters are called upon to tame massive blazes, often without the benefit of significant financial support. That could change if a recent proposal from President Barack Obama is approved. The potential budgetary plan would allow the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior to access a FEMA disaster fund for aid when fighting the largest wildfires.
The old strategy increased damage
Research from Headwater economics found that the federal cost of wildfire protection and suppression is approximately $3 billion per year, or nearly half of the total budget for the Forest Service. The most severe 1 percent of blazes cost about 30 percent of the annual budget, according to the Gannett Washington Bureau. Additionally, states and local agencies spend between $1 billion and $2 billion each year fighting wildfires.
These high costs often divert resources from awareness and protection initiatives. Many governors of Western states believe the lack of adequate funding is ultimately detrimental to society.
“The result … has been a significant increase in the average acreage burned, higher fire suppression costs, increased impacts on public health, catastrophic damage to the environment and more communities threatened by wildfires every year,” the governors wrote in a letter to Congress.
While FEMA has provided states with extra grants and funds in the past, the organization was forced to limit the number of fires it could support. This often involved rejecting requests for federal disaster declarations, which in turn restricted the aid states could receive and impeded preparations for the next wildfire.
New regulations treat wildfires as natural disasters
By the year 2050, climate change is expected to increase the instance of wildfires 50 percent in the U.S. and 100 percent in the Western states. According to the Forest Service, those rising rates make wildfires less of a manmade accident and more of a natural disaster, justifying the shift in funding practices.
Under the proposed changes, Congress would be responsible for paying to fight large wildfires in the same way it contributes to the disaster response for hurricanes and tornadoes. The Departments of Interior and Agriculture, responsible for directing firefighters during these blazes, could pull funds from a disaster account. This allows departments to save money for awareness and prevention efforts, as well as expanded firefighter training, rather than funneling their entire budget for fighting existing fires.
“When you take resources to suppress fires, you sometimes have to take it from the very resources that you would use to restore property or prevent fires to begin with,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told The New York Times. “And that just basically shifts the risk to a much longer-term and more serious risk.”
The change is a part of the 2015 federal budget, and it will have to be debated and discussed by Congress before going into effect. However, changing the way departments are funding opens up a world of opportunities and benefits to first responders. In addition to providing extra financial support for more manpower and resources during recovery, it also allows organizations to better prepare for future wildfires. Funneling money to prevention and awareness might mean fewer fires, as well as lives and homes saved in the long run.
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