In September 2020, the U.S. Forest Service took the extraordinary step of closing all 18 national forests in California. The risk of catastrophic fire had become so acute that tolerating any human visitors—who could ignite more—was no longer tenable. Damages from the fires of 2020 are still being tallied, but the catastrophe is hard to deny. Five of the state’s six largest fires on record occurred in 2020. Migrating birds dropped from the sky by the thousands from some combination of asphyxiation, exhaustion, and starvation. An estimated 80% of California’s watersheds had recently burned by 2019, leaving them immediately vulnerable to mudslides. The smoke has become the West’s worst air pollution source by far. Proximity to national forests, long what homebuyers craved, is now a grave threat across the West.

The outlines of the problem are apparent in the Forest Service’s budget. In fiscal year (FY) 2020, Congress spent $8.2 billion on the agency, 36% more than in FY 2011 in constant dollars. Almost $5 billion of that was on fire. As more people build in fire-prone areas, more has been and will be spent suppressing fires. A 2011 statute creating a revolving fund has consistently failed to cover those costs—leaving the agency to more borrowing from its regular accounts. The more research that has been done on treating fuels, the more unlikely it appears that we will treat our way out. Congress, it is fair to say, is hemorrhaging money on fire in the national forests with little prospect of improving.