Group claims climate change fueling costly wildfires

Nonprofit says warming has lengthened fire season

WASHINGTON - As firefighters continue to battle wildfires around the West, a group of scientists is claiming that climate change is fueling the costly blazes and the costs of fighting them.

In its report issued last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists noted that to pay for the cost of fighting blazes, the U.S. Forest Service — the primary federal agency responsible for combating wildfires — likely will have to transfer funds from other accounts, including projects that would help prevent wildfires in the first place. 

That is what has occurred in seven out of the last 10 years when firefighting costs went over-budget, they said.

The Union of Concerned Scientists recently issued a report, "Playing with Fire," that details why it believes the costs of wildfires in the West have skyrocketed in recent years. 

According to the report, the reason is three-fold.

  • A rise in temperature of nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970 has lengthened fire season from five to seven months, causing forests to dry out earlier in the year, and ignite more easily. Longer seasons also tend to create more fuel for larger, more severe fires. Other climate-related factors at play include more frequent and severe droughts and changing precipitation patterns.  The average annual number of large wildfires in Oregon, California, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming has doubled in the past 40 years. 
  • In states like Oregon, increased wildfire risks are compounded by residential development patterns. According to the report, Oregon is one of four states with the highest percentage of homes at high and very high risk of damage from wildfire. Greater than 7 percent of Oregon's residential properties, a total of 107,388 homes, are at high or very high risk in the state, largely due to development in areas in or near forests. Eleven percent of the land considered high risk in Oregon is already developed.
  • Past fire suppression and forest management practices have also contributed to an over-accumulation of flammable fuel wood that is raising fire risks.

The UCS report notes the costs go beyond firefighting, including lost tourism revenue, property damage, impacts on public health, and an increased risk of post-fire flooding. These costs can exceed firefighting costs as much as 30 percent.

When it comes to paying for wildfire suppression, in the last two years, the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department have had to transfer more than $1 billion from other accounts to pay for increased firefighting costs.

Congress is considering legislation, including Sen. Ron Wyden's (D-Ore) bill, that would move fire suppression funding out of the U.S. Forest Service and Interior Department budgets and into an emergency disaster fund to prevent the siphoning of cash from other programs.

The UCS has taken heavy criticism from some conservative politicians and others who don't believe in the science of climate change and/or dispute that humans are playing a major role in it.

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