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On Monday July 21, 2014, Jake Hixon, center and Kathy Harding look for family heirlooms they may have been spared at a relatives house after the wildfire that swept through Pateros, Wash., last Thursday. / Mike Bonnicksen, AP

The costs of fighting wildfires are rising dramatically, and could keep climbing in the face of climate change that's contributing to longer fire seasons out West and the spread of housing developments near forests, a science group warned Wednesday.

"The annual suppression cost has exceeded $1 billion in each year since 2000," said Rachel Cleetus, senior climate economist with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) during a phone conference with reporters Wednesday.

But the actual damage costs - when including lost tourism revenue, the harm caused to public health and expenses related to watershed damage - can dwarf firefighting costs, she added.

The report comes as the largest wildfire in Washington-state history continues to blaze, and a total of 26 fires are burning almost a million acres in the western U.S. Nationally, wildfires have burned less than half the 10-year average so far this summer.

The report noted that since 1985, fire-suppression costs have increased nearly fourfold from $440 million (in 2012 dollars) to more than $1.7 billion in 2013.

Additionally, climate change is a dominant driver of the fires in the West, according to Jason Funk, a UCS climate scientist. "Temperatures have risen in the West by 2 degrees since 1970, and there's been a big change in length of wildfire season, which has risen from five months to seven months," he said.

He also said the average number of big western fires has risen from about 140 per year in the 1980s to 250 in the 2000s.

Another problem, as Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, noted in the press briefing, is that 60% of all new homes built in the U.S. since 1990 are in high-fire-risk "wildland-urban interface" areas.

Overall, the UCS report found that more than 1.2 million homes across 13 western states are at high or very high risk of wildfires. These properties have a combined estimated value of nearly $190 billion, with 80% of the properties at the highest risk in California, Colorado and Texas.

While local governments may approve the development of these new homes, it's the state and especially, federal governments that are stuck with the bills to protect these homes from wildfires.

How to pay for fighting these fires continues to be an issue in Washington. Most federal fire-suppression costs are borne by the U.S. Forest Service, while the Department of the Interior picks up the remainder.

But with only about $1 billion budgeted for fighting fires, the Forest Service will likely once again have to tap other funds, such as forest-thinning projects, to continue fighting fires as the season goes on. This despite the fact that in terms of both acres burned and number of fires (according to the National Interagency Fire Center) it's actually been a below-average season nationally.

The Obama administration has proposed changing the way the fires are paid for, tapping Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster funds rather than taking from other programs within agency budgets, according to Jim Douglas, director of the Department of Interior Office of Wildland Fire. A bill is currently pending in Congress to make this legislative change.

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell testified earlier this month that while the government has the money to combat about 99% of the wildfires, it needs a stable funding source to pay for the biggest blazes - the remaining 1% - that consume 30% of his agency's budget.

"These fires are getting bigger, hotter and more damaging," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., one of the bill's co-sponsors.

Contributing: Associated Press



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Firefighting costs soar as warming worsens wildfires

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