As the U.S. fights wildfires across the country, the federal government is burning through money that could instead go toward making forests healthier — and less fire prone.

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 more than 8.8 million acres this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, and large fires are still blazing in many states, particularly in the West.

Here in North Dakota, wildfire has scorched more than 5,000 acres in the Little Missouri National Grassland.

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

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

These catastrophic fires are becoming bigger and more frequent in our changing climate. More people now live near fire-prone forests, too, so firefighting costs are going up year after year.

That’s what’s happening right now. And this year’s fire season has reignited a discussion in Congress over how to pay for firefighting.

As legislators consider 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.

When the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior do their annual budgeting, they have to plan for costs based on past fire seasons. But each new season is proving to be anything but average. For example, more than 52,000 fires have burned so far this year — greater than each of the last five years for that same period.

Fighting these fires is draining the agencies’ budgets — money that could go toward making sure our country’s forests are healthy and provide the benefits expected of our nation’s public lands.

As fire suppression takes up more and more of the agencies' funds, they are borrowing 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.

We need to break out of this cycle — and Congress holds the keys to a solution. We need to change how we fund firefighting.

Both chambers of Congress are considering legislation that would do just that. 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.

At The Nature Conservancy, we think these comprehensive congressional approaches are a great idea. And we’ve been collaborating with a broad coalition — ranging from sportsmen’s groups to other environmental organizations — to show the broad and bipartisan support for a wildfire funding fix.

We know that firefighting costs are going to continue to rise. And under the government’s current funding structure, the U.S. can’t keep up.

So it’s critical for Congress to pass a solution to this problem. We need to not only fight megafires, but also keep our forests healthy to help prevent those damaging fires from happening in the first place — and protect our nation’s land, property and people.

To learn more or to take action on wildfire, go to http://bit.ly/wildfirefix.

Eric Rosenquist is the conservation and fire manager at The Nature Conservancy in North Dakota. He lives in Center.

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