White House prepares for harsher, costlier wildfires tied to climate change

The U.S. needs a new plan to address the growing risk of wildfires, Obama said Monday

Topics: Wildfires, Barack Obama, White House, Congress, Climate Change, drought, ,

The drought-stricken Western U.S. is anticipating a record-setting wildfire season this year, and the White House is ready to overhaul the way it pays to fight them. On Monday, Obama promised the governors of eight of the hardest-hit states, including Arizona, Colorado and Oregon, that next week’s budget proposal will change the way wildfire funds are distributed in order to focus on prevention. From Businessweek:

The president will ask Congress to pay the cost of battling such fires the same way the U.S. pays to mitigate other natural disasters, with funding coming outside budget caps, White House press secretary Jay Carney said.

“Unfortunately, the current way that the government pays for fire suppression and preparedness costs is ill-suited to the increasing severity and cost of fires,” Carney said yesterday at a briefing.

In each of the past two years, the Departments of Agriculture and Interior have been forced to rely on transfers from other programs to fund fire suppression, he said.

Parts of the west have been gripped by drought, with California one of the hardest hit states. Along with crop losses in the state that’s the biggest U.S. agricultural producer, the historic drought has made California a tinderbox. There have been at least 606 wildfires so far in 2014, more than three times the five-year average over the same period, according to the state Forestry and Fire Protection Department.

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“Population growth near forest and range lands, past management practices and a changing climate have dramatically increased wildfire risk and the resulting cost,” Carney told reporters. Adjusted for inflation, the cost of fighting fires has more than doubled from its 1990s average, according to the nonprofit research group Headwater Economics, to about $3.5 billion per year from 2002 to 2012.

Lindsay Abrams
Lindsay Abrams is a staff writer at Salon, reporting on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email labrams@salon.com.

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