By Laura Zuckerman
SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - The costs of fighting U.S. wildfires topped $2 billion in 2017, breaking records and underscoring the need to address a U.S. Forest Service budget that mostly goes to fires, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said on Thursday.
"Forest Service spending on fire suppression in recent years has gone from 15 percent of the budget to 55 percent – or maybe even more – which means we have to keep borrowing from funds that are intended for forest management," Perdue said in a written statement.
The Forest Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, could be spending that money on logging, prescribed burns or insect treatments, measures designed to reduce the fuel load of forests primed to burn, he said.
Perdue said the funding formula used to earmark money for fire suppression is no longer adequate amid fire seasons that have grown longer and scorched larger swaths of public lands, mostly in the U.S. West.
At the peak of the region's fire season, there were three times as many large blazes burning out of control compared to the five-year average and almost three times as many personnel assigned to fight them, according to U.S. fire managers.
"We are breaking records in terms of dollars spent, acres of national forest land burned and the increased duration of fires," Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke said in a statement.
Perdue said Congress should treat major wildfires like other large-scale disasters that are covered by emergency funds.
The call comes amid a 2017 season in which the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest have been hardest hit.
The governors of California, Montana and Oregon declared wildfire emergencies earlier this summer as fires forced the evacuation of thousands, destroyed homes, drove smoke pollution to harmful levels and, in Montana, claimed the lives of two wildland firefighters.
Perdue is not the first to call for fire disaster funding.
Former President Barack Obama in 2014 endorsed legislation floated by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Republican Senator Mike Crapo that would have treated the largest fires as natural disasters underwritten by disaster accounts.
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Cynthia Osterman)