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Nation’s firefighting costs likely to exceed budget for season

PHOENIX — The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have $1.4 billion available to fight fires but expect to spend $1.8 billion to do their jobs.

Both agencies said that could force them to pull funding from other programs such as forest thinning projects, controlled burns and keeping up the campgrounds. It’s called “fire borrowing” and they’ve diverted funds seven times in the past 12 years.

It’s happening more often because fire seasons are about two to three months longer than they were 30 years ago. Annual acreage burned has more than doubled to more than 7 million and more people are building homes in the forest. The result is driving up the firefighting costs.

Arizona is moving into the heart of the wildfire season with $4 million of state money to battle the fires. That doesn’t sound like a lot to work with, but David Geyer with Arizona State Forestry said they can tap into federal dollars if it reaches that level of disaster.

“What we would request is a Fire Management Assistance Grant which would give us up to 75 percent of eligible costs,” Geyer said. “When FEMA steps in, it’s only for the fires on state and private land.”

The state has received federal grants for six fires in the past three years, including the Wallow and Yarnell Hill fires, which saved the state $10 million to $13 million.