For­est Ser­vice spends record $2B bat­tling for­est fires

Yuma Sun - - OPINION -

WASH­ING­TON — The For­est Ser­vice has spent more than $2 bil­lion bat­tling for­est fires around the coun­try — a record as wild­fires blacken the Amer­i­can West in one of the na­tion’s worst fire sea­sons.

Wild­fires have rav­aged the West this sum­mer with 64 large fires burn­ing across 10 states as of Thurs­day, in­clud­ing 21 fires in Mon­tana and 18 in Ore­gon. In all, 48,607 wild­fires have burned nearly 13,000 square miles (33,586 square kilo­me­ters).

The fires have stretched fire­fight­ing re­sources, de­stroyed more than 500 homes and trig­gered health alerts as chok­ing smoke drifted into ma­jor Western cities.

The For­est Ser­vice, part of the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, is the na­tion’s pri­mary fire­fight­ing agency.

Agri­cul­ture Sec­re­tary Sonny Per­due said the se­vere fire sea­son means of­fi­cials “end up hav­ing to hoard all of the money that is in­tended for fire preven­tion, be­cause we’re afraid we’re go­ing to need it to ac­tu­ally fight fires.”

The em­pha­sis on fire­fight­ing means that money for pre­scribed burns, in­sect con­trol and other preven­tion ef­forts is di­verted to putting out fires in what Per­due called a self-de­feat­ing cy­cle. The end re­sult is that small trees and veg­e­ta­tion re­main in the for­est for fu­ture fires to feed on.

“That’s wrong, and that’s no way to man­age the For­est Ser­vice,” Per­due said.

The Agri­cul­ture Depart­ment has been ask­ing Congress for years to change the way fire­fight­ing is funded so the For­est Ser­vice does not have to raid non­fire pro­grams in bad years.

The spend­ing fig­ure an­nounced Thurs­day marks the first time wild­fire spend­ing by the For­est Ser­vice has topped $2 bil­lion. The pre­vi­ous record was $1.7 bil­lion in 2015.

The fig­ures do not in­clude spend­ing by In­te­rior Depart­ment agen­cies such as the Bu­reau of Land Man­age­ment and Na­tional Park Ser­vice, nor do they in­clude spend­ing by state and lo­cal govern­ments.

The In­te­rior Depart­ment says it has spent at least $391 mil­lion with sev­eral weeks left in the fire sea­son.

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