What the wildfires are costing us

  • The U.S. Forest Service spent over $2 billion in fire suppression in fiscal 2017.
  • Budget overruns mean less work is done preventing next year's fires.
  • As of last week, more than 9 million acres have burned in the U.S. since the beginning of the year — nearly the size of Maryland and Connecticut combined.

The wildfires ravaging Southern California are part of a worrying trend: big blazes costing taxpayers billions.

Over the past decade, wildfires have gotten bigger, they've gotten more frequent and they're getting more expensive to fight. Budget overruns make it impossible for the agency to make preparations and prevent future blazes.

In the past year, the U.S. Forest Service spent about $2.4 billion dollars fighting wildfires. That's about double the annual amount a decade ago. The Forest Service has exceeded its budget for fighting fires in 13 of the past 16 years.

As of last week, more than 9 million acres have burned since the beginning of the year, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center. That's almost twice the space burned over the same period in 2016. It's also more than 14,000 square miles — nearly the size of Maryland (9,774) and Connecticut (4,845) combined.

We have to remember that wildfires are a natural phenomenon and they're actually good for local ecosystems. But they're not good for development and housing. The high-risk areas are at the edges of population centers, where real estate meets nature. In addition, unusual weather patterns have starved parts of the country of normal seasonal rains.

That's what's striking about the Southern California fires right now: High winds and bone-dry conditions have made the area a tinderbox.

Here's the problem with all the money the government is spending on these fires: Because they're going over budget, they have to take the money from other sources. And those sources are the things that prevent fires next year from happening. So preventative work, like clearing out brush, doesn't get to happen as much and then what happens is next year, you have more fires.