Monday, December 17, 2012

Western fires stretch state, federal budgets; they're both an effect and a cause of climate change

"Wildfires have scorched almost 9.2 million acres of U.S. land this year, the third largest one-year burn in the country’s recorded history. They’ve claimed lives, destroyed homes, killed animals and ravaged their habitats, spewing toxins that settle in water and on land. The fires have pushed government resources to their limits, and in some cases beyond them," Jim Malewitz of Stateline reports. Officials in the hot, arid West are trying to figure out how to fight these increasingly devastating fires with less and less dollars. (Getty Images photo: Homes destroyed by forest fire in Colorado Springs)

The federal government has spent $1.45 billion fighting fires in the West this year, outpacing the $950 million budget for the work. Most of the money is spent on fire suppression, leaving little for fire prevention efforts, Malewitz writes. As many as 82 million acres of the 193 million acres managed by the U.S. Forest Service need to be treated to lower fire risk. That can cost as much as $2,000 an acre. States are far outspending their firefighting budgets, prompting Western governors to ask the federal government for help. They want the "Flame Fund," set up in 2009 to make sure the USFS had enough money to fight fires without reducing prevention funds.

Researchers expect Western forest fires to become worse as the climate continues to get warmer and drier. A University of California study found that hotter temperatures will likely cause more forest fires in most of North America over the next 30 years. "What's more, wildfires, at least in some part, are contributing to climate change," Malewitz writes. Wildfires release as much as 1.3 percent of the greenhouse gas emitted from burning fossil fuels, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Those emissions are expected to increase by 80 percent over the next 40 years. "But more worrisome are the carbon-storing forests, grasslands and shrub lands that are being burned away," Malewitz writes. (Read more)

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