In a year of extraordinary natural disasters, here’s another record-setter: Fiscal year 2017 was the U.S. Forest Service’s most expensive fire season yet. The cost of battling blaze after ever-bigger blaze across the country topped $2.4 billion.

Two decades ago, the cost of fighting fires consumed only about 15 percent of the Forest Service’s budget. But increased development in and around undeveloped open spaces, along with, paradoxically, decades of fire suppression, mean that wildfires are growing larger, more intense and more dangerous to communities.

As the cost of firefighting has gone up, the Forest Service budget has stayed relatively flat. The result is that fire suppression now consumes 55 percent of the agency’s annual budget.

The problem is this: The Forest Service ends up hoarding the money intended for other forest management programs – including fire prevention – because officials know they’re going to need it later in the year to fight fires.

That makes no sense. It’s far more expensive to fight fires and to rebuild after fires than it is to prevent them.

The good news is that there is bipartisan agreement that the federal government has to fix the way it pays for fighting wildfires. There are proposals in Congress to allow the Forest Service to tap emergency funds when it exceeds its firefighting budget. So, in unusually bad years like 2017, the agency could get one-time funding to handle the need, rather than having to gut its forest health and prevention programs.

The bad news is that partisan ideological battles have, so far, stymied the needed changes. Republicans are pushing for legislation that would tie the budget fix to “forest management” proposals that would allow for more commercial logging on public land while weakening environmental reviews and endangered species protections for such projects.

Congress must proceed with the bipartisan Forest Service budget fix. The longer it waits, the more fire prevention projects are delayed and the threat of more catastrophic fires grows.

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