Washington — The federal cost of fighting wildfires across the West soon will exceed $1 billion with Congress likely to dip into the treasury again this year to pay the final tab, federal officials said Wednesday.
So far, the federal government has tallied at least $626 million in costs to battle scores of fires from Montana to New Mexico, spending as much as $18 million a day, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, which is coordinating the firefighting effort.
But several senior administration officials -- after an internal review of the worst outbreak of wildfires in half a century -- said it has become clear the firefighting costs will exceed $1 billion before long.
"Actual costs will be right at about a billion dollars," predicted Hank Kashdan, budget director for the U.S. Forest Service.
Officials at the fire control center said their running tally of $626 million is conservative and may understate overall costs because it focuses only on direct firefighting and does not include tens of millions of dollars spent this year on preparedness and training and other fire activities.
"A lot of the bills won't come in until after the fire season is over," said Lorraine Buck, a spokeswoman for the interagency group that has set up headquarters in Boise, Idaho.
The U.S. Forest Service and the Interior Department already have spent just over $1 billion this year on all of their fire programs -- direct firefighting and preparedness -- with another month of the fire season remaining.
"We're depleting all available reserves. ... We're going to be looking at fire suppression costs far in excess of what we have available," said Kashdan.
Just before leaving for its summer recess, Congress came up with an additional $350 million for fighting the wildfires, bringing the total amount budgeted for direct firefighting to $836 million this year.
While that is expected to fall short of what will be needed, officials emphasized the money will be found.
"Money is not an issue. The money is there to do what is necessary," said Linda Ricci, a spokeswoman for the administration's Office of Management and Budget. She said the Forest Service and Interior Department have discretion to temporarily shift funds from other areas of their budget and that the administration is prepared to ask Congress for additional funds if needed when lawmakers return in September.
Most of the money so far has been spent on salaries and support for more than 27,000 firefighters battling the western blazes, including several thousand soldiers.
The Forest Service has 16,000 people involved in firefighting activities, half of its work force, according to an agency spokeswoman. More than 1,200 fire engines, 240 helicopters and 42 tanker aircraft have been deployed.