Although California dedicated several months in 2015 to battling the Butte and Valley wildfires, which together scorched nearly 150,000 acres throughout the state, the National Interagency Fire Center revealed that this burned acreage was just a part of a much bigger, not to mention much more destructive, picture.
In 2015, wildfire numbers showed that a record-breaking 10.1 million acres were burned across the United States, which surpassed the previous record set in 2006 at 9.9 million acres. Last year also signified the first time on record that the nation exceeded the 10 million acre mark.
More than 50 fires nationwide burned upwards of 50,000 acres each; of those, 20 fires exceeded more than 10,000 acres each. In total, more than 4,500 homes and other structures were destroyed and a total of 13 firefighters, including seven U.S. Forest Service firefighters, lost their lives.
Two of the top ten largest fires in 2015 occurred in California, including the Butte Fire, which lasted a little over a month and set 70,868 acres in Amador and Calaveras counties ablaze before it was ultimately contained in October. A total of 475 residences, 343 outbuildings and 45 structures were damaged, and two civilian fatalities occurred.
Another one of the largest fires was the Valley Fire that burned 76,067acres in Lake, Napa and Sonoma Counties from Sept. 12 to Oct. 15 when it was finally contained. A total of 1,955 structures were destroyed, including 1,281 homes, 27 multi-family structures, 66 commercial properties, and 581 other minor structures. Four firefighters were injured battling the blaze and four civilians died.
The 2015 fires stretched across federal, state and private land with Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington being the most affected. While the West saw the brunt of the fires, it is agency resources across the country—from New York to Arkansas to Florida—that feel the brunt of a Forest Service budget subsumed by firefighting costs.
The cost of the Forest Service’s wildfire suppression reached a record $243 million in a one-week period during the height of suppression activity in August. With a record 52 percent of the Forest Service’s budget dedicated to fire suppression activities, compared to just 16 percent in 1995, the Forest Service’s firefighting budget was exhausted in 2015, forcing the United States Department of Agriculture to transfer funds away from forest restoration projects that would help reduce the risk of future fires, in order to cover the high cost of battling blazes.
Following the record-breaking announcement, USDA Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack renewed the call for Congress to pass the bi-partisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act.
“These fires have very real human costs, as we lost seven members of the Forest Service firefighting team in the line of duty, and 4,500 homes were lost. We take our job to protect the public seriously, and recently, the job has become increasingly difficult due to the effects of climate change, chronic droughts, and a constrained budget environment in Washington,” said Vilsack.
Vilsack urged Congress to fix the fire budget to stop an ever increasing amount of the operating budget going to fire suppression. Failing to do so, he said, “will result in more deadly and devastating fires in the future.”
“While the news that more than 10 million acres burned is terrible, it’s not shocking and it is probable that records will continue to be broken,” said Vilsack. “That is why last month I directed our staff to end the practice of fire borrowing and slow the consuming growth of fire as a percentage of the Forest Service budget and, instead, ensure that all resources in the 2016 budget are spent in the manner intended.
“With a predictably long fire season on the horizon in 2016, lives, property and the future of our forests and grasslands hang in the balance. Congress must fix this issue once and for all,” continued Vilsack.
The Administration proposed that Interior and the Forest Service be able to access a discretionary disaster cap adjustment after the amount spent on fire suppression exceeds 70 percent of the 10-year average. This is mirrored in the proposed bi-partisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act which is budget neutral and also has broad stakeholder support.
This approach allows the agencies to invest additional resources in forest and rangeland restoration and management. In the case of the Forest Service, it would increase acres treated by 1 million acres annually and increase timber outputs by 300 million board feet annually. For Interior, it would increase the number of acres treated annually by 500,000 acres and help protect public lands such as the sage steppe ecosystem.