A volunteer starts a prescribed fire at Nachusa Grasslands.
Nachusa Grasslands A volunteer starts a prescribed fire. © Andrew Simpson/ TNC

Stories in Illinois

Congress: Use disaster relief to stop megafires from burning our cherished lands and conservation budgets.

Battling megafires across our country takes a toll here in Illinois, even if those fires don’t often hit close to home.

By Michelle Carr and Robert Littiken

Battling wildfires across our country takes a toll here in Illinois, even if those fires don’t often hit close to home.

At a price tag of more than $2.4 billion so far, the government has spent more money fighting fires this year than any other wildfire season on record. Fires have already burned through more than 8.8 million acres of American land this year — an area bigger than the size of Maryland — according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

While earthquakes, floods and other disasters use emergency funds for damages and recovery, wildfire disasters are paid for directly from the budgets of federal agencies.

As Congress considers additional disaster relief aid in response to the hurricanes that recently devastated parts of the U.S. and Caribbean, lawmakers should also provide further funding for fire suppression and permanently change the way the U.S. pays to fight wildfires. Congress needs to treat wildfires like the disasters they are and make disaster funding accessible for federal firefighting efforts.

Right now, when the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior make their annual agency budgets, they have to plan for costs based on past fire seasons. But each new season is proving to be anything but average.

Catastrophic fires are happening more and more often as increasingly extreme weather patterns lead to bigger fires. More people now live near fire-prone forests, too, so firefighting costs are going up year after year.

This flawed way to pay for fighting these fires means that federal agencies must choose: Put the fires out, or spend the money on the conservation and land management work they’ve historically focused on.

While the priority is understandably to save lives and property, it means agencies borrow money from programs like recreation and forest health to make up budget shortfalls. But it’s that conservation work — such as restoring forests and removing brush — that helps reduce the risk of fire in the first place.

Not all wildfires are bad or need to be put out. When fires are part of a forest’s natural cycle, they can actually help plants and animals. And they prevent the pile-up of grass and brush that could have fed large fires later.

But when forests aren’t healthy — when brush builds up and groups of trees are too tightly packed — wildfires can rage out of control. They destroy homes and communities, harm natural and cultural resources and threaten human lives.

It doesn’t make sense to have firefighting come at the expense of projects that would make our lands healthier — and less fire-prone — in the first place.

We need to break out of this cycle, and Congress holds the keys to a solution.

Lawmakers are currently considering how to fix this problem so we can pay for firefighting, reduce the risk of future megafires and still benefit from conservation and other programs here in Illinois. Our recreation and natural resource programs are hurt when the government must funnel that money into fighting fires.

The Senate this fall introduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, and the House of Representatives introduced a similar bill this summer. The Senate also added a fire-funding solution to a flood insurance bill.

Through our roles at The Nature Conservancy, a conservation organization working in Illinois for more than 60 years, and the Illinois Prescribed Fire Council, a group of individuals, organizations, land managers and agencies interested in ensuring the safety and effectiveness of prescribed fires in Illinois , we think these approaches are a great idea, and they can’t be enacted soon enough. We’ve been collaborating with a broad coalition — ranging from sportsmen’s groups to other environmental organizations — to show just how much bipartisan support is out there for these bills.

You can help, too, by letting your members of Congress know a wildfire funding fix is important to you.

We need to not only fight wildfires, but also fund conservation programs across the country. And we need to keep our forests healthy to prevent fires — and protect our land, property and people in Illinois and across America.

Michelle Carr, state director, The Nature Conservancy of Illinois

Robert Littiken, President, of the Illinois Prescribed Fire Council