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Wildfires will burn through most of US Forest Service's budget within a decade, report says

This Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014 photo, a firefighting aircraft drops retardant over a wildfire along a hillside near Foresthill, Calif.  Fire crews are making steady progress against a wildfire burning near a Northern California interstate that has destroyed six homes and is threatening hundreds more. State fire officials say the blaze along Interstate 80 about 40 miles northeast of Sacramento was holding steady at 420 acres on Friday while containment increased to 30 percent. (AP Photo/ Tony Hallas)
File photo by Tony Hallas/AP
A firefighting aircraft drops retardant over a wildfire along a hillside near Foresthill, Calif. on October 9, 2014.

With fire seasons 78 days longer than four decades ago, the U.S. Forest Service is spending more than half of its budget fighting wildfires for the first time in over a century.

That’s according to a new report released by the federal agency on Wednesday.

“Twenty years ago, the Forest Service spent about a sixth of its budget fighting fire,” said Robert Bonnie, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s undersecretary for natural resources and environment. "The trends are not good here.”

The report predicts that ever-increasing number of fires will eat up two-thirds of the Forest Service’s budget within a decade, and that wildfires will burn twice as many acres by 2050. 

Bonnie said that the agency currently spends about $2.3 billion of its $5 billion budget directly on firefighting at the expense of other efforts such as research, forest restoration and recreational programs.

It’s especially problematic in California, where homes and other buildings have increasingly encroached on the state’s forests. The state hasalready battled nearly 1,200more wildfires in 2015 than it had at this time last year, according to Bonnie.

“Much of the water comes from national forest lands in California,” he said. “Recreational opportunities in places like the San Gabriel National Monument or the San Bernardino National Forest are critically important and yet we have fewer resources to manage those important resources that the public relies on.” 

The good news: There’s bipartisan legislation that aims to address the problem. 

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which has been introduced in the House and Senate, would stop the transfer of resources from non-fire programs to firefighting by creating a disaster fund. It will also provide additional resources to wildfire prevention.

"Solving this problem of the fire budget is not just about fire,” he said. “It's about managing this valuable public resource [that] all Americans own in a way that they're healthier [and that] the public gets the water and the recreation and the other values that they hold dear."