Rising cost of fighting fires poses challenges for forest management

Sep 23, 2014

Photo from www.alternet.org.

The cost of fighting wildfires has more than doubled in the last two decades in the country, according to the federal government. That shift could be serious for Nevada.

To cover the increased expenses, states have had to engage in “fire borrowing,” which means moving federal funds from fire prevention to fighting them instead.

Dave Prather  is in charge of fighting fires for the Nevada Division of Forestry. He says fire borrowing has become quite common because the increase in fires has put a strain on their budget. 

“Given the drought cycle that we’re currently in, I would expect fire borrowing to continue as long as that drought cycle is over the western part of the United States,” Prather says.

Having less money to prevent fires also creates challenges for forest management and rehabilitation. One example: the decrease in what Prather calls “fuel reduction activities”--the clearing out of dry brush and dead trees, which can burn quickly during a wildfire. He’s also very concerned about the environmental effects, like destruction of sage grouse habitat.

“When sage grouse habitat is burned, then we’d like to be able rehabilitate it to the fullest extent possible and with less funding available to do that, obviously the impacts can be particularly severe to the state,” Prather says.

The sage grouse population is a major concern for Nevada. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service could list the bird as endangered by 2015.   

Prather says the federal government is currently considering a couple of different options to minimize the effects of fire borrowing. One is to set aside more federal money for fighting fires. Another option is to manage fires like natural disasters so funding would come from federal agencies like, FEMA.

Governor Brian Sandoval, who is chairman for the Western Governors’ Association, recently signed a letter on behalf of the group requesting Congress to improve policy to end fire borrowing.