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Forest Service with Few Choices for Rising Wildfire Fighting Costs

Firefighting costs for the U.S. Forest Service topped $2 billion in 2017. (April Davis/Oregon National Guard)
Firefighting costs for the U.S. Forest Service topped $2 billion in 2017. (April Davis/Oregon National Guard)
July 31, 2018

EUGENE, Ore. – Firefighting season is in full swing, with tens of thousands of acres burning in Southern Oregon and the Columbia River Gorge. Are there ways the U.S. Forest Service can cut down on the ballooning costs of fire suppression?

Cassandra Moseley, a research professor at the University of Oregon, says it's largely out of the agency's control, and that costs are driven mainly by three factors. Climate change has created more burn days, development has pushed into fire-prone areas where firefighting is especially costly and the Forest Service has had to create a workforce dedicated solely to battling blazes.

Moseley adds that focusing on fire suppression keeps the agency from reducing the fuels that drive fires.

"The landscape has more trees and more shrubs in it and that makes fires burn more severely when they do burn," she says. "Those kinds of dynamics are really coming together to make fire more dangerous when it happens, particularly to people and so that drives up costs."

Firefighting costs exceeded a record $2 billion in 2017, including more than $450 million in Oregon.

This year, Congress passed a wildfire funding fix, which takes firefighting out of the Forest Service's regular budget. Previously, the agency borrowed from other parts of its budget to pay for suppression.

Moseley says this allows the Forest Service to fund activities needed to address the growing threat from wildfires.

Moseley also says the agency must respond to fires.

"When there's extreme fire behavior, the Forest Service is going to, of course, throw every resource they have available, and the community and public and elected officials expect them to do that," she explains.

Moseley says communities in fire-prone areas can prepare by managing vegetation, installing proper roofing and having evacuation routes in place. She says this would not only cut down on costs but also protect property and make firefighting safer.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - OR