Price of wildfire expected to burn across government budgets

The Dixie-Jumbo Fire, north of Dixie town, Idaho, started on July 5 and by July 27 had burned
38,571 acres. More than 500 personnel are on scene and the fire was at 18% containment. (Photo courtesy of InciWeb)

By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports

As wildfires across the state burn forests and property, budgeting for the suppression of the often human-caused blaze gets complicated. 

Wildfire suppression takes into account which agency the burning property belongs to in Idaho. Those potential owners include the Idaho Department of Lands, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Forest Service, county or city land, and private landowners. 

Usually, whichever department, agency or person owns the property where the fire started picks up the tab for combatting the fire. The cost of combating the fire grows as the number of acres burned and personnel on scene grows. The resources used to combat the fires are taxpayer funded through either the state or federal government. 

In 2020, 661 of Idaho’s 944 fires were caused by humans, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Those 944 fires burned across 314,352 acres of land in Idaho.

While the smoke in the air shows no signs of clearing, budgeting for a historic fire year is a fluid process.

In Idaho, the Department of Lands continues to fund combatting its wildfires through deficiency warrants, approved by the Land Board. The Land Board is granted the authority for fire suppression purposes under the Idaho Forestry Act.

In a July 20, Idaho Land Board meeting, DOL Director Dustin Miller told the board the department has seen about $22 million in wildfire expenses already.

In the Department of Lands’ appropriations for Fiscal Year 2022, an additional $20 million was transferred by the Legislature from the general fund to the fire suppression deficiency fund for wildfire management expenses. 

The Fiscal Year 2022 Idaho Department of Lands’ budget for forest and range fire protection was set at $11.95 million. In the previous year, Fiscal Year 2021, that budget was set at $10.9 million.

As of July 1, the Department of Lands reported that its deficiency account had a balance of $31.9 million, but since that date there has been significant fire suppression efforts and the account balance changes daily.

But the Department of Lands is only one agency in the state that must pay for the costs of fire. On a national scale, the costs of wildfire suppression reach into the billions.

In 2019, the National Interagency Fire Center reported costs of about $1.5 billion on fire suppression nationwide. In 2020, NIFC reported about $2.27 billion in fire suppression costs. The largest amount of money ever spent in one year on wildfire suppression came in 2018, when the country surpassed $3.14 billion in expenses. Those numbers do not include the cost of fire preparedness budgets, and NIFC does not break down the cost of fire by state.

Federal agency fire suppression budgets must be approved by Congress. 

State and federal agencies have forecasts, but won’t know the total cost spent on wildfire until after they happen. It’s anticipated by NIFC that the costs in summer of 2021 could set new records.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) can offer some reimbursements if the wildfire is declared a “disaster.” Idaho’s neighboring states, including Oregon, Washington, Utah, Nevada and Montana all declared emergencies this year due to wildfire.

The federal emergency declarations are meant to supplement state and local or tribal government efforts in providing emergency services, such as the protection of lives, property, public health, and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in any part of the country, according to FEMA.

It remains unclear how much funding will be needed to combat wildfires this summer, but the state did announce it has a historically large amount of money in the bank. 

Gov. Brad Little recently announced that Idaho ended its fiscal year with a surplus of nearly $900 million, adding to the largest surplus in state history.

State revenue collections exceeded $5 billion for the first time, representing 24.2% growth over the previous fiscal year. This growth represented the single largest annual increase in general fund revenue, according to the governor’s office. 

Appropriations on how to use that money are the responsibility of the Idaho Legislature.

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