This just might be the most cataclysmic forest fire season in history. So far this year, the Forest Service has spent $800 million trying to keep the blazes from raging too far out of control. This cost amounts to more than 50 percent of their budget, draining coffers so much that they can’t perform other critical services, like forest management. Adding insurance costs, damage to buildings and infrastructure, and further damage caused by flash floods and mudslides, this year’s fire bill is estimated to ring in at around $2.5 billion.
So far this year, we haven’t lost an entire town or city but, with 140 million people living in fire-prone areas, it’s a distinct possibility. If the unthinkable happens, the National Resources Defense Council estimates the cost could double or even triple. In some areas, the expense of protecting communities has risen above the property value, hitting up to $400,000 per home. But, this is not an economic exercise, and when property is at stake, the Forest Service must respond.
“Climate change and other factors are causing the cost of fighting fires to rise every year,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a recent interview, “but the way we fund our Forest Service hasn’t changed in generations.” Currently, more than 30,000 men and women are doing their best to keep us safe. There are so many fires burning that the National Guard, active-duty service soldiers and firefighters from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have all arrived to help. That still isn’t enough. As of mid-August, fires have devoured more than 7 million acres in the US, and the more they burn, the higher the cost to all of us.