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News for January 25, 2022

Idaho Governor Proposes Budget for More Firefighters, Future Firefighting Costs

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The increasing destructive Idaho wildfires that the state‘s Republican governor blames on climate change have urged him to propose an additional budget for more firefighters and $150 million to cover future costs for fighting fires.

According to a report, Governor Brad Little included the money in his budget plan, which was announced Monday to begin the legislative session of 2022.

“We talk about this a lot at the Western Governors’ (Association),” said Little, who chairs the group composed of 19 governors and leaders of three U.S. territories. “About the deterioration of the resilience of the forest because of climate change.”

The budget also includes a 21% general fund increase of $1.5 million for the Idaho Department of Lands to hire eight fire engine bosses, three fire management officers, and more firefighters on the ground.

The department’s total budget, which also includes the addition of a $10-million boost in federal funds, will be up by just a little more than 21% to $80.6 million.

The state agency is responsible for protecting fires across 9.800 square miles (25,000 square kilometers) of federal, state, and private property. It experienced one of its most destructive wildfire seasons in 2021 with about 225 acres (580 square kilometers) destroyed, six times that of the 20-year average and costing $75 million.

The $150 million included in Little’s budget proposal comes out of the state‘s $1.9 billion surplus budget. The state is prepaying for the next five years’ fire suppression costs which usually average $30 million per year.

Little, a rancher, chairs the Idaho Land Board that directs the Lands Department in managing about 3,900 square miles (10,000 square kilometers) of land owned by the state. The land earns money mostly for public schools and mostly through harvesting timber.

Forest officials from the state are experimenting with new strategies to stop wildfires to safeguard the state‘s forests.

“The way we’re managing our state lands is different than we did even ten years ago,” Little said in a news conference after his State of the State address on Monday. “We know how many trees per acre, what the mix needs to be so that we can as effectively as possible protect them.”

Scientists believe that climate changes have resulted in the West being more humid and warmer over the last 30 years and are expected to make the weather more extreme and wildfires frequently and devastating.

In Idaho, a mix of drought, hot weather, insect infestations, and wildfires have been a problem in state forests in recent years.

“Most experts agree extreme fire seasons are likely the new norm,” Dustin Miller, Lands Department director, said in an op-ed released on the same day as Little’s State of the State address. “Alongside this increased fire risk, Idaho is growing with more people living near and recreating on forests and rangelands. Unfortunately, with growth comes even more unwanted human-caused wildfires.”

Of the 408 wildfires that the state battled in 2021, 254 were started by humans, and 154 were started by lightning. The state aggressively pursues those who ignite wildfires to recover the costs of fighting fires, and the money recovered in recent years ranges between $250 and $2.5 million.

“We investigate every fire,” Lands Department spokeswoman Sharla Arledge said Tuesday.

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