WILDFIRE:

Mild season bodes well for budgets, but funds could burn fast

Against the odds, this year's wildfire season has been the quietest in at least a decade.

The relative calm has kept the Forest Service on sound fiscal footing compared with past years, when it quickly burned through all its wildfire funding and had to siphon money from nonfire programs.

But agency officials warned that the situation could deteriorate rapidly, with dozens of fires currently burning uncontained on the West Coast and in Idaho and the potential for many more new blazes over the next few weeks.

"Long story short, we have a lot of fire on the landscape right now and a lot of potential for fire activity for the next few weeks," said Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Jones. "Between those two factors, it's possible we could exhaust our appropriated suppression funding by the end of August."

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack this week told the Associated Press that the agency is already putting $400 million to $500 million in projects on hold in anticipation of the need to borrow that money to fight wildfires (Greenwire, Aug. 6).

"When we begin to run out of money, we have to dip into the very programs that will reduce the risk of these fires over time," Vilsack told the AP.

The so-called fire borrowing -- a result of insufficient appropriations -- has happened with increasing frequency as wildfires have grown larger and more homes are built near forests. Since 2002, the Forest Service has run out of wildfire funding seven times and had to borrow more than $3 billion from nonfire accounts, most recently from research, capital improvement and reforestation programs.

Yet federal data suggest the 2014 season could be among the mildest in recent decades, and some Capitol Hill aides say Vilsack's warnings are overblown.

As of yesterday, less than 1.8 million acres had burned nationwide, which is less than 40 percent of the 10-year average for this time of year.

That's despite most of the West last month experiencing temperatures 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit above normal and portions of the western Great Basin and West Coast simmering at 6 to 8 F above normal, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

While "exceptional" drought has plagued California, western Nevada and the Texas Panhandle, Southwest monsoons have brought seasonably moist conditions to Arizona and New Mexico. Two lightning events last month in Northern California and the Pacific Northwest ignited several new fires, but rains and humidity tempered much of the activity, according to NIFC.

The mild conditions have buoyed agency balance sheets.

As of Monday, the Forest Service had spent about one-third of the nearly $1 billion in wildfire-suppression money Congress provided through the end of September.

Likewise, the Interior Department had spent roughly 41 percent of its $390 million suppression allowance, the agency said.

Wildfire seasons by this point in the year are normally about 62 percent complete when measured by acres burned. By early August, an average of about 4.5 million acres has burned out of a full-season average of about 7.3 million acres, according to NIFC data.

The most severe wildfires typically peter out by late September, though Southern California often sees wildfires into October and November with the onset of the Santa Ana winds.

This year's remaining suppression funds -- the Forest Service and Interior have $886 million left between them -- was a key reason House appropriators earlier this month rejected President Obama's July 8 request for $615 million in emergency supplemental wildfire funding before decamping for the August recess.

"$615 million is overstated, and the agency will not need to borrow it in August," said one Senate appropriations aide. "It's also very possible they may not borrow at all."

The aide said it appeared unlikely that the agencies would have to borrow funds to fight fires this year.

While that would be a huge plus for Forest Service programs -- logging, hazardous fuels removal and forest restoration projects would be spared from budget raids -- it could be inconvenient timing for the Obama administration and more than 100 lawmakers from both parties who are trying to persuade Congress to swiftly overhaul the nation's wildfire budgeting.

The administration in its fiscal 2015 budget request proposed fighting the most severe wildfires using disaster funds that are tapped to respond to hurricanes, floods and tornadoes.

Proponents of the spending argue that it's the only way to prevent fire borrowing and restore predictability to Forest Service programs, but some Republican leaders insist fires should continue to be fought from within the agencies' budgets and that logging should be greatly accelerated to thin fire-prone forests, thus reducing future wildfire costs.

But proponents of Obama's budget plan say fire borrowing is a new normal as wildfire costs continue to outpace Congress' ability to budget for them.

Last year was a prime example.

By Aug. 16, 2013, the Forest Service had already spent nearly $1 billion on suppression, exhausting its emergency suppression funds and leaving just $50 million remaining, about half a week's worth of suppression (E&ENews PM, Aug. 21, 2013). Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell announced he would be transferring $600 million from nonfire accounts to make up the projected shortfall.

At the time, the country's wildfire preparedness level had reached its maximum threshold of 5 for the first time in five years, a level that requires about $100 million in spending per week.

As of yesterday, the wildfire preparedness level was 4.

But trying to predict what will be spent in the coming months can be tricky. Fires depend largely on the coexistence of dry fuels and lightning or human-caused ignition, the latter of which is difficult to predict. Cost is determined in large part by wind and the proximity of people, homes and infrastructure.

In a June 13 report, the Forest Service said it expected to spend $1.27 billion on suppression this fire season -- about a quarter-billion more than was budgeted.

Above-normal fire potential is expected to continue across much of the West Coast states, according to NIFC's August outlook. Most of the Rocky Mountains are expected to see normal wildfire activity, and Oklahoma, western Texas, southeastern New Mexico and much of the coastal Southeast were expected to see milder activity.

But the weather forecast doesn't always track with suppression spending, said Ken Frederick, a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management at NIFC's Boise, Idaho, headquarters.

"Of course, if it is going to be hot, dry and windy for another month, we would expect more spending on suppression," he said. "But no one can predict with any accuracy how much more will be spent."

Chris Topik, who leads forest restoration programs for the Nature Conservancy and is a former House appropriations aide, said it appears unlikely the Forest Service will have to borrow money for wildfires in August. But it probably will run out of funds before the end of September, he said.

"It's looking very grim in California, Oregon and Washington," he said, noting that wildfire suppression costs can at times rise to $20 million a day. "We know the drought conditions are very extreme in the far West, so we hope things don't get extreme."

Twitter: @philipataylor | Email: ptaylor@eenews.net

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