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Report projects sharp rise in costs of fighting wildfires

A tired looking firefighter in a yellow jacket smeared with soot sits on the edge of a bridge, holding a shovel and looking down at the ground, with his helmet at his feet and a pack on his back.
USDA Forest Service
Wildfires, exacerbated by a changing climate, are taking a toll on wildland firefighters, natural resources and financial resources.

A new study prepared by the U.S. Forest Service for the White House says national forests may experience a near-doubling of the area burned in wildfires by the middle of this century because of climate change.

The study analyzes 10 future scenarios for a warmer climate and projects the area burned by fire will increase by at least 40% but as much as 300%.

Jeff Prestemon of the Southern Research Station says that will mean more need to fight fires that threaten communities.

"That’s a primary reason why we suppress fires, is to protect people, property, resources, in that order of priority," says Prestemon. "What this means is that this increasing fire will mean an increase in spending on that kind of protection by firefighters on our federal lands."

Fire suppression now costs about $3 billion a year. The report estimates a rise to $4 billion by midcentury and $5 billion by the end of the century in today’s dollars.

The U.S. Forest Service points to a need for more restoration work and prescribed burns that reduce the risks of catastrophic fire.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.