GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Widespread drought across the West had forecasters expecting an above-average wildfire season this summer, which so far has not lived up to expectations.
U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said Wednesday that the hot windy weather known as "red flag" days have not lined up with the lighting strikes that start most fires, particularly in drought-parched California.
The result has been that while the number of fires to date is about 70 percent of the 10-year average, the area burned is less than half.
But that is changing, Tidwell said from Washington, D.C. Eighteen large fires were burning in the Northwest with intensities not normally seen until August.
With only about $1 billion budgeted for fighting wildfires, the Forest Service expects by late August to once again have to tap other funds, such as forest thinning projects, to continue fighting fires as the season goes on into the fall, Tidwell said. Last year, that amount was $500 million.
Officials: Fire season in West so far is below expectations
"If we can stop a fire from coming into a community, we will stop it," he said. "Cost is just an outcome. It isn't what drives our actions. What drives our actions is safe, effective suppression tactics."
The largest wildfires — 1 percent of blazes across the country each season — take up 30 percent of wildfire spending. The Obama administration has proposed changing the way those fires are paid for, tapping Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster funds rather than taking from other programs within agency budgets, said Jim Douglas, director of the Department of Interior Office of Wildland Fire.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and others have filed legislation to do the same thing. Wyden said the current situation makes matters worse by curtailing programs like forest thinning that will reduce future fire danger.
Meanwhile, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report warning climate change is contributing to longer and larger fire seasons, and efforts to protect new homes in forests are driving up firefighting costs and risks.
The report suggested making local governments responsible for more of the firefighting costs now born by states and the federal government. That would give local governments an incentive to allow fewer homes in areas with high fire risks.