Wildfire Risk is Going to be Above Average
WASHINGTON, May 5, 2015 – U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell presented the Forest Service forecast on the upcoming 2015 fire season in testimony today before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Forest Service researchers expect 2015 to continue the trend of above average fire activity.
"Above normal wildland fire potential exists across the north central United States and above normal wildland fire potential will threaten many parts of the West this summer," said Chief Tidwell. "We anticipate another active fire year, underscoring the need to reform our wildfire funding."
The forecast indicates there is a 90 percent chance that this year's Forest Service fire suppression costs will be between $794 million and $1.657 billion, with a median estimate of $1.225 billion, potentially forcing the diversion of funding from other vital programs to support suppression operations. Any costs above the median is greater than the "10 year average" and would force the Forest Service to leverage funding from other land management programs. Diverting funds to cover the cost of wildfire suppression affects other critical Forest Service programs and services, said Tidwell, including efforts to reduce wildfire risk through mechanical thinning, prescribed fires, and other means.
Wildfire suppression costs have increased as fire seasons have grown longer and the frequency, size, and severity of wildfires has increased due to changing climatic conditions, drought, hazardous fuel buildups, insect and disease infestations, nonnative invasive species, and other factors. Funding has not kept pace with the cost of fighting fire. Over the last 10 years, adjusting for inflation, the Forest Service has spent an average of almost $1.13 billion on suppression operations annually.
The President's Fiscal Year 2016 budget includes a proposal to reform the way that wildfire suppression is funded. Aligned with the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, these reforms are necessary to ensure the Forest Service continues to deliver the full scope of its mission.
Chief Tidwell said the Forest Service has the capability and responsibility to protect life, property, and natural resources. The responsibility to respond to wildfire is not isolated to the Forest Service. It works extensively with partners within the Department of Interior (DOI) as well as State, tribal and local firefighting organizations to support wildland fire management operations. These cooperators are essential to ensuring that every wildfire receives an appropriate, risk informed, and effective response regardless of the jurisdiction.
Within the Fiscal Year (FY) 15 appropriation for Wildland Fire Management, the Forest Service will be able to mobilize approximately 10,000 firefighters for the upcoming fire season, as well as up to 21 airtankers available for operations on exclusive use contracts, additional air tankers available through "Call When Needed" contracts, and the capability to mobilize cooperator air tankers, if available, through agreements with the State of Alaska and Canada. In coordination with the military there are also eight Mobile Airborne Firefighting System-capable C-130's available to meet surge requirements, as well as an extensive fleet of more than 100 helicopters available to support operations.
The Forest Service has worked collaboratively with its partners to develop the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, of which fuel treatment is an essential component. In 2015, $32 million of the Hazardous Fuels appropriation was allocated to 50 projects in areas with a likelihood of high intensity fire within populated areas or near important watersheds for municipal water supply.
The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program also assists in the agency's work with partners to conduct hazardous fuel treatments and ecosystem restoration that encourages economic and social sustainability, leverages local resources with national and private resources, reduces wildfire management costs, and addresses the utilization of forest restoration byproducts to offset treatment costs and benefit local economies.