Wildfires are costing more than what states budget, study found. How does Idaho compare? - East Idaho News

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Wildfires are costing more than what states budget, study found. How does Idaho compare?

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BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — New research from Pew Charitable Trusts shows many states fail to budget properly for wildfire suppression, leading to emergency spending that obfuscates state costs of firefighting.

In a report published late last year, Pew spoke to wildfire budgeting experts in Alaska, California, Florida, Nevada, Texas and Washington to learn how those states budget for wildfire suppression and wildfire prevention. Pew researchers said state officials they spoke with noted in the last five to 10 years, they’ve noticed their wildfire budgets falling short more frequently.

While Idaho wasn’t among the states studied for the report, local fire officials said the research still holds important insights for the Gem State.

State forester Craig Foss said Idaho lawmakers are trying to keep an eye to the future when it comes to fire suppression, but the unpredictability of wildfires makes that difficult.

Since 2011, the state’s share of estimated wildfire suppression costs has averaged $22.5 million annually, according to Department of Lands records. But annual totals vary wildly from that average, with the state responsible for as little as $2 million in 2011 to a record $68 million in 2021.

“Those are the years that can really catch you off guard from a budget standpoint,” Foss told the Idaho Statesman in an interview. “And it’s difficult because we really don’t know when those fire years are going to occur.”

FIRE COSTS ARE COMPLEX

In Idaho, the Department of Lands is responsible for fire suppression costs for fires that start on state-owned land, private forest land and even some federal property in North Idaho, Foss told the Statesman.

“Every state handles things a little bit differently,” Foss said.

Pew’s report noted that wildfire costs are shared between state, federal and local agencies, and the ways they divvy those costs are laid out in cooperative agreements. Those agreements are the groundwork for “a complex process of billing and reimbursement between levels of government to cover the costs associated with the fire,” Pew said.

Peter Muller, one of the authors of the report, told the Idaho Statesman in an interview that his team has been looking at disaster spending for a while, trying to hone in on state disaster expenditures which that are often more fragmented and less studied than federal spending.

“We know that states do spend a lot on disaster response, disaster planning, all those things, but there hasn’t been good data,” Muller said. “We wanted to better understand what states are spending on (wildfires), how they’re thinking about it and really, how they’re planning to invest in mitigation to try and reduce the cost in the future.”

The Pew research team found that each state handles wildfires — and their resulting costs — in its own way.

Idaho has a master fire agreement that lays out responsibilities for the state Department of Lands, the U.S. Department of Interior, the U.S. Forest Service and more.

Muller said that cost-sharing method can make it difficult for states to know just how much they spend on wildfire suppression each year. It can take years for the federal government to reimburse states or bill them for costs, adding to the confusion.

“Knowing what a fire costs takes a long time to figure out because maybe you have to spend more money up front and you don’t get the reimbursement until a year or two down the line,” Muller said.

States frequently look at previous years’ spending to determine future wildfire budgets, the report said. Without a clear idea of what they’re spending on fires each year, states can struggle to know how much to budget. Each of the six states Pew researched had sought out supplemental funds from state legislatures in recent years.

“The estimates states have used to inform their wildfire budgets have frequently proved insufficient, forcing states to cover spending gaps using after the-fact budgeting tools such as supplemental appropriations,” the Pew report said. “While these reactive mechanisms provide needed flexibility during emergencies, they also obscure from the state budgeting process the true costs of wildfires.”

FIRE REIMBURSEMENT TAKES TIME

Sharla Arledge, spokesperson for the Idaho Department of Lands, told the Statesman in an email that the agency uses its firefighting budget for “pre-suppression preparations” like prescribed burns. Funding to fight wildfires instead come from deficiency funds set aside by the Idaho Legislature from the state’s general fund.

“What our governor and Legislature have been attempting to do since probably about 2016 is attempting to prefund our deficiency warrant account,” Foss said. “That keeps a positive balance in that account, so as we suppress fires and spend money out of that, we don’t have to go make a supplemental request because we haven’t overspent that account.”

Foss said the last supplemental request the Department of Lands made was in fiscal year 2015.

That means the Department of Lands’ budget doesn’t take a hit when federal reimbursements take time. The agency is still waiting on nearly $1 million in repayments from the 2020 fire season and has only invoiced federal agencies for $1.1 million of the $8.6 million it expects to be reimbursed for the 2021 fire season. Billing for the 2022 fire season, which cost Idaho an estimated $26.6 million, is ongoing.

Flourish
For an interactive table click here.

Pew researchers encouraged state fire officials to review their wildfire budgeting processes to see if their estimates are in line with their costs. It suggested an account like Idaho’s could be a possible solution.

“A specific fund for suppression could also be an option to smooth out the spikes of wildfire funding in states with repeated significant wildfire damage,” the report said.

The Pew report noted that paying for fire suppression with non-budgeted funds — even one like Idaho’s — can have a negative impact on future budgets. The report said relying on supplemental funds “removes the discussion of the full cost of wildfire from the regular budget cycle.”

“The second limitation is that relying on supplemental appropriations and similar tools makes it more difficult to focus legislative interest on long-term wildfire planning,” the report said.

The authors of the Pew report urged state wildfire officials to track wildfire suppression cost and budgeting data and share it with other states. Muller said that could help states find a formula that best estimates their fire costs and create conversations that could put fire mitigation at the forefront for state agencies.

“You’re never going to budget for the most expensive year possible,” Muller said. “There’s always going to be a need for in some years after the fact spending, but what we noticed in our research was that in a number of states, they’re relying on that after the fact spending every year or almost every year. And when you’re doing that, that’s when it starts you start to think that the amount you’re putting forward upfront needs to be readjusted.”

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