New study shows states aren’t planning enough for wildfires

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (KRQE) – New Mexico territory is no stranger to wildfires. Now data shows states may not be doing enough.

A study released Wednesday showed that states are not allocating nearly enough budgets to prevent and fight wildfires.

“The number of hectares burned in the last five years is 68% higher than the average for the previous four decades,” said Colin Foard, manager of the fiscal federalism initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Researchers explained that wildfires become more severe and expensive over time.

“As fires have increased, so has government spending on related costs. To cite some numbers, at the federal level, combined spending by the Department of the Interior and the US Forest Service doubled from fiscal 2011 through 2020,” Foard said.

Consisting of six states — Alaska, California, Florida, Nevada, Texas and Washington — the study examined how states budget for wildfire costs, where those approaches don’t quite work, and what can be done. The study found that states are consistently underspending on fire containment and suppression, and this is straining their budgets.

“Most of the states we spoke to used a backward-looking estimate to decide how much to spend initially on wildfire suppression in a given year,” Foard said. “They generally look at how much a state has spent fighting wildfires over the last five to ten years and apply some kind of calculation based on that number.”

New Mexico does likewise. Foard explained that if states don’t budget enough, they rely on other agencies’ emergency funds to cover the costs, and this obscures the true cost of wildfires. This makes budgeting for the next natural disaster more difficult.

“When a state receives extinguishing assistance from a federal fire department or equipment from a neighboring state, the details of the reimbursement owed may not be resolved for years after the fire,” Foard said.

The study also showed a consensus on the importance of wildfire containment in keeping the long-term costs of wildfires low. Despite this, the study found that when fires do break out, the cost of fighting fires often exceeds the money spent on damage control. Researchers said states need to better track wildfire spending.

In New Mexico, Assistant State Forester Lindsey Quam said the state typically sets aside about $3 million each year to fight wildfires. However, this year was one of the most expensive they have ever seen.

“Of course, this year was an exceptional year. We actually got the $10 million on top of another $7 million, so we actually got almost $20 million that we didn’t have before,” Quam explained. Additionally, “to suppress it, we probably requested emergency funding for an executive order, we probably requested an order of around $40 million,” Quam added.

Based on the findings, the researchers recommend states at risk of wildfires assess their budgeting, invest more in mitigation, and say all levels of government need to better track and report their wildfire-related spending.