Worsening Wildfire Seasons Tax The Forest Service The agency says it's now spending record amounts on fire suppression, and these bills are coming at the expense of its other programs — many of which would help prevent future wildfires.
NPR logo

Worsening Wildfire Seasons Tax The Forest Service

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/435552748/435577979" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Worsening Wildfire Seasons Tax The Forest Service

Worsening Wildfire Seasons Tax The Forest Service

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/435552748/435577979" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This has been one of the worst wildfire seasons ever in the Northwest, and fighting those fires is expensive. Today, while visiting the region, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said it should be FEMA - not the Forest Service - that pays to fight catastrophic blazes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM VILSACK: It's imperative that Congress get this thing fixed and get it fixed this year.

CORNISH: This is something the Forest Service has been pushing for the past several years, as NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Behind what seems like another battle over which agency should pay for what is something bigger and way more complex. The U.S. Forest Service simply isn't set up to deal with these new types of mega-fires that have become the new norm in the West. To understand this, remember that wildfires have been intertwined with the Forest Service since it was created more than a century ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: When fire breaks out in our national forests, even in the most remote areas, the U.S. Forest Service is on the job in a hurry.

SIEGLER: For decades, protecting valuable timber and other resources was the main reason behind the agency's 10 a.m. policy. Every wildfire had to be put out by 10 a.m. the following day. University of Colorado wildfire expert Michael Kodas says they got good at it.

MICHAEL KODAS: There are a lot of people who refer to the U.S. Forest Service as the U.S. fire service because fire has become such a part of their mission.

SIEGLER: Except, Kodas says, the wildfire season is now longer - 78 days longer, in fact - than in the 1970s. And with climate change and a history of fire suppression, things will only get worse. This is taxing the Forest Service to the breaking point. It's now spending more than a billion dollars a year to fight fires and just a fraction of that for every other important ecological job the agency does, like watershed restoration, tree thinning or recreation.

KODAS: Part of the problem here is, basically, overly ambitious expectations of what the Forest Service and what our wild land firefighting organization overall can really accomplish.

SIEGLER: In some ways, the Forest Service set itself up for this. According to interviews with retired and former Forest Service officials, as logging declined, the agency made its name as the firefighting leader on Capitol Hill. Wildfires are how the agency often justifies its existence to lawmakers, and firefighting has only gotten more expensive and political with homes and whole cities now built out into the woods.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The Waldo Canyon fire, which really exploded this afternoon...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: And today, everyone got a heartbreaking look at what these fires in eastern Washington are capable of.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: On the West Coast, a destructive wildfire that's threatening an entire town in northern...

SIEGLER: Dick Mangan spent his four-decade Forest Service career working wildfires in Oregon and Montana. He says the 24-hour news cycle is making it harder to get smarter about long-term forest management.

DICK MANGAN: All of a sudden, somebody's going to be sticking a camera in there, almost forcing the issue, socially and politically, that we take some kind of action, try to protect these places. And that generally involves an awful lot of expense.

SIEGLER: Which brings us back to this latest push to make FEMA pay the costs to fight the most catastrophic fires. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told me he's been making similar pitches every summer since he was appointed in 2009. And in his words, Congress is keeping with the status quo.

VILSACK: At the same time, members of Congress and senators come to us and say, we want more work being done in our forests, we want more timber treated.

SIEGLER: But wildfires are still relatively small natural disasters compared with, say, a big hurricane or earthquake. And there's widespread doubt that Congress will act on changing fire budgets this summer. So the U.S. Forest Service may be stuck as the U.S. fire service for some time. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.