2015 wildfire season costliest on record

The 2015 fire season cost a record $1.71 billion, according to numbers released by the U.S. Forest Service last week. That figure tops the $1.67 billion (adjusted for inflation) spent in 2002. Fires this year also consumed more than 9.8 million acres – close to another single-year record for acres burned (2006). Fire records date back to 1960.

“The future trend will be hotter, longer, and more severe and ultimately more costly fire seasons, which directly impacts the Forest Service’s ability to fund other critical work such as restoration that can reduce wildfire threat, drinking water area protection and recreation investments,” USDA communications director Matt Herrick said in a statement.

The National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) has shown support for the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act (WDFA) and other tools aimed at lessening the chokehold wildfire has put on the Forest Service’s annual budget. Wildfire will account for more than 50 percent of the agency’s FY2015 budget, and in October Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell projected that number could climb to more than 65 percent over the next decade.

Not long ago wildfire accounted for roughly 15 percent of Forest Service spending. Should it reach two-thirds, as Tidwell suggested it will, wildfire spending could cripple the Forest Service’s efforts to manage America’s forest lands.

“We accomplished more than 4.6 million acres of restoration that improves the health of our forests and watersheds in 2014, an increase of nine percent compared to 2011,” Tidwell said. “We are eager and poised to do even more, if we can solve the two-part suppression budget crisis.”

The number of fires has remained steady, as evidence by data available on the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) website:

Year*                     Fires                       Acres

2015                       58,307                   9,828,427

2014                       62,969                   3,570,693

2013                       46,343                   4,306,851

2012                       67,300                   9,208,454

2011                       69,779                   8,614,667

2010                       68,579                   3,379,048

2009                       79,108                   6,406,420

2008                       76,240                   5,216,814

2007                       85,456                   9,313,613

2006                       96,129                   9,830,379


* Jan. 1 through Dec. 18 for each year listed

Rising wildfire costs can be attributed to several factors, including increased size and intensity, as well the high costs of fighting fire in wildland-urban interface (WUI) areas. Perhaps this is best illustrated by the fact that Alaska accounted for more than half of the total acreage in 2015, but a relatively small percentage of total cost.

The Forest Service relies on a 10-year average to project future wildfire budgets, but this year’s 10-year figure was $1.13 billion, well below the final estimated cost (and wildfire cost estimates do not include local or state costs, or the many indirect costs associated with wildfire; some experts believe the final actual cost of a fire is three times the reported cost, or greater).