To fight fires, the Forest Service receives a certain amount of money from Congress each year. Once it’s exceeded that budget, the agency pulls money from other programs.
In 1995, fighting fire took up 16 percent of the Forest Service’s annual budget. This year, the agency crossed the 50-percent threshold for the first time.
When fire seasons get costly, the vast list of other operations performed by the Forest Service suffers. An August 2015 agency report titled “The Rising Cost of Wildfire Operations,” outlined the costs to programs outside fire suppression. Wildlife & Fisheries Habitat Management, which aids recovery of endangered species, lost 18 percent of its funding. Programs to inventory and monitor wildlife, critical to making informed environmental decisions—35 percent.
The Deferred Maintenance and Infrastructure Improvement Program is dedicated to the highest priority projects in the agency’s backlog of work. These include “serious public health and safety concerns,” the report says. In 2001, it supported around 400 major projects. In 2014, there was money for three.
The report states that if left unchecked, by 2025 over 67 percent of the budget will be directed toward fire. The U.S. Forest Service is on a path to becoming little more than a very large fire department.