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U.S. burns through wildland firefighting budget, and the season may yet worsen

This is shaping up to be the worst year for U.S. wildland fire in at least a decade and maybe far longer.

Like hurricanes, patterns of wildfire severity are difficult to predict.
REUTERS/Kyle Grillot

Forest fires and torrential rain don’t mix, which may explain why our hurricane-focused news media are taking so little notice of what’s shaping up to be the worst year for U.S. wildland fire in at least a decade and maybe far longer.

Several yardsticks can be applied to fire severity — number of large fires, total acreage burned, personnel deployed, lives lost, dollars spent. With the single, thankful exception of firefighter fatalities, the numbers so far this year are staggering.

Let’s start with the money as perhaps the most comprehensive single statistic for historical comparison.

This year the U.S. Forest Service’ s budget for wildland fire suppression was $1.6 billion; as of Thursday, the service announced that it had already spent more than $2 billion — with three weeks remaining in the fiscal year, the probable peak in firefighting intensity yet to arrive, and major battles likely to continue through next month before tapering off in a fire season that never really ends anymore.

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Already, according to the Forest Service, the 2017 fire season in the West and Northwest has seen “three times as many uncontained large fires on the landscape as compared to the five-year average, and almost three times as many personnel assigned to fires.”

More than 27,000 people supported firefighting activities during peak Western fire season. The Forest Service has been at Preparedness Level 5, the highest level, for 35 days as of September 14, 2017. Approximately 2.2 million acres of National Forest system lands have burned in that time.

And for context on that $2 billion, consider this: It was a milestone two years ago when the service asked Congress to appropriate a little over half that amount for firefighting, based on a 10-year rolling average of its actual outlays that came in at $1.13 billion.

But, then, it has been many years since the Forest Service was able to do its job within the congressional allocation. The policy is to spend whatever is needed, then ask Congress to reimburse it for whatever can’t be covered by raiding the budgets for other programs — including those aimed at managing the federal forests to make then less fire-prone.

This year will be no exception. In announcing the busted budget for 2017, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said:

Forest Service spending on fire suppression in recent years has gone from 15 percent of the budget to 55 percent — or maybe even more — which means we have to keep borrowing from funds that are intended for forest management. We 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. It means we can’t do the prescribed burning, harvesting, or insect control to prevent leaving a fuel load in the forest for future fires to feed on.

Perdue also indicated that he would be advocating for an alternative funding approach favored by the Obama administration: to treat wildland fire and its costs on the same footing with other natural disasters, like hurricanes.

‘Flash drought’ drives fires

So what happened to so greatly intensify a fire year that was looking last spring like it might be milder than normal?

Well, like hurricanes, patterns of wildfire severity are difficult to predict.

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As of June 1, the National Interagency Fire Center’s three-month outlook was for below-normal wildland fire activity in much of the West through early summer. Even for August and September, when the risk rises, NIFC predicted normal fire activity throughout the country except for portions of northern California, northern Nevada and Hawaii, where above-normal patterns were expected (and a little piece of Puerto Rico, where below-normal activity was predicted).

But by Sept. 1, the picture had changed dramatically, with a large swath of the northern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest shaded red for above-normal activity. This was driven mostly by the unforeseen arrival of a pattern increasingly characterized as “flash drought” — sudden and severe dryness, combined with high temperatures.

And nowhere has the flash been as fierce as Montana, which atop sweeping crop losses is experiencing the worst wildfire year in its history; the entire state has been declared a fire disaster area.

As Tanja Fransen, a National Weather Service employee in Glasgow, Montana, told the UK Guardian,

This is unprecedented. This is as dry as it’s been in recorded history and some of our recording stations have 100 years of data. A lot of people try to compare this to previous years, but really, you just can’t.

The Pacific Northwest, too, is experiencing wildland fire of unaccustomed scope, with ash “snowing” to earth in places like Portland and Seattle, and public health warnings about lung damage from smoke so heavy and persistent that even Minnesotans have become accustomed to the occasional whiff riding in on a westerly breeze.

The outlook through November

Alas, the current NIFC outlook is for more of the same, at least for a while. Excerpts:

While an active southwestern monsoon has curtailed activity in the Southwest and across portions of the central Rockies, above normal significant fire activity continues to be observed across portions of the Pacific Northwest, Northern Rockies, northern Great Basin and northern California. Fuel moisture levels and fire danger indices in these areas are at near-record to record levels for severity.

Drier and warmer than average conditions across the central Great Basin and Southern California are allowing for the fine fuels to become more receptive to fire activity.

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Precipitation received was generally well below average across the Pacific Northwest, Northern Rockies, Great Basin and California in August as most areas received less than 25 percent of normal rainfall.

Fire season will peak by mid -September as the fuels remain much drier than average and as existing precipitation trends continue. By mid-September decreasing solar radiation received and longer nights will allow for fuel moistures to begin recovering. Should a season-slowing weather event not occur, this will be sufficient to allow for the fire activity across the northwestern states to begin to decrease significantly late in the month.

Significant large fire activity will remain possible in foehn wind-prone areas like the Rocky Mountain Front and across Southern California through November and will be event-driven should they occur.