Friday, October 06, 2017

Record wildfires strain state budgets

"State and federal lawmakers across the country are looking back on a record fire season and asking whether there’s a way to better prepare financially for major wildfires. The federal government spent more than $2 billion on fires from Florida to Washington this year. States spend untold millions more," Sophie Quinton reports for Stateline, the nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Stateline graphic; click on it to see a larger version.
Western states usually spend less than 1 percent of their budget on wildfire fighting and prevention, but when fires are bad that can more than double. In states like Montana with a small tax base and a tight budget, wildfires can use up reserve funds and usher in a fiscal crisis. Montana now faces a $200 million budget shortfall, in part because the state had to spend more than $60 million fighting wildfires. Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock said in Sept. that it was the most expensive fire season in Montana history.

It could get worse. Wildfire seasons are getting longer and fires larger and more dangerous because of a number of factors, including climate change. That means state and federal agencies must spend more money on fighting fires and less money on programs that help prevent or lessen the impact of fires in the future.

States pay for wildfire fighting differently. "Lawmakers in many wildfire-prone states set aside part of their general fund each year for fighting fires. Programs in Oregon and Washington are partly funded by taxing timber companies and other forest landowners, for instance. Most states also set aside pools of money to pay for natural disasters and other emergencies," Quinton reports. When that money runs out, lawmakers have to figure out where to find the rest.

The location of the fire can sometimes add to the confusion of figuring out who pays for what. The federal government usually pays to put out fires on federal land, but fires often cross from federal land onto private or state land (which states pay for). And even more complicated, sometimes local and state firefighters, firefighters from out of state, and a hodgepodge of local, state and federal equipment is used to fight fires.

"The Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse states for three-quarters of the cost of putting out fires that threaten lives and critical infrastructure," Quinton reports. "But some fires are too rural or remote to qualify. States also spend a lot of time and money putting out smaller, less dangerous fires." And federal reimbursement for fire suppression usually only covers a small portion of what states spend. In 2015, nine states in a study spent $1.8 billion to fight wildfires, but were reimbused for only $300 million, Quinton reports. 

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