WHERE THERE'S FIRE, THERE'S ALSO MONEY TO BE MADE
Daniel B. Wheeler
dwheeler at teleport.com
Sun Jul 29 18:21:15 EST 2001
The following article is from The Oregonian, July 29, 2001, p A17
WHERE THERE'S FIRE, THERE'S ALSO MONEY TO BE MADE
With millions of dollars in federal aid, the West's "fire economy" is
thriving, though few are celebrating
By DAVID FOSTER, The Associated Press
MISSOULA, Mont. - Plagued by wildfires? Fear not. the Proteus Fire
Master stands ready to help - for $6,000 a day.
With the clatter of steel treads and the whine of a 300-horsepower
diesel engine, the 26-ton firefighting juggernaut climbs out of a
steep gully on the Proteus Proving Grounds," a chewed-up back lot near
the Missoula airport.
Scott Peterson stands nearby, smiling. While the prospect of another
long summer with flame fills many Westerners with dread, entrepreneurs
such as Peterson smell opportunity in the smoky air.
The Proteus can crawl through the forest near a blaze to scrape out
bare-earth corridors with its 6-foot-wide bulldozer blade. Its
hydraulic boom can topple trees 2 feet thick, then slice them up with
a retractable chain saw. Hoses squirt water in all directions, fed by
a 3,000-gallon tank that can be refilled on the run by a helicopter.
Peterson's company, the Rough Terrain Technologies Group, rushed out
a Proteus prototype last summer to help battle blazes on the
Bitterroot National Forest. Encouraged by Forest Service officials,
Peterson built three more of the contraptions for $350,000 apiece.
He calls the $6,000 daily rental fee a bargain.
"We figure we can replace 35 people with one Proteus," he says. "It's
more effective, it's safer, and it gets the water to where it's
Last year's fires, the worst in half a century, charred 8.4 million
acres nationwide and cost the federal government $1.4 billion to
fight. the blazes caught the attention of Congress, which approved an
extra $1.6 billion to beef up budgets this year for fire research,
suppression and prevention and the thinning of forests to reduce
dangerous fuel accumulations.
All that money is giving a boost to the rural West's "fire economy,"
a thriving if unpredicatlbe commerce in which residents are enriched
by the very forces of nature that threaten to destroy them.
Consider the Bitterroot Valley, where 365,000 acres burned last year,
including nearly 20 percent of the Bitterroot National Forest. More
than 1,500 people were evacuated, and 70 homes were destroyed.
Most people here will tell you the fires were awful. At the same
time, however, the government was spending $74 milliion to fight the
Bitterroot fires, a good portion of which trickled into the local
Benefiting from the fires is still a sensitive subject here.
"It isn't discussed," says Dixie Dies, public information officer at
the Bitterroot Forest headquarters in Hamilton. "There was so much
hurt, people don't want to talk about who did well."
But many did do well.
One company collected $60 a day for each portable toilet - 400 in all
- that it rented to the Forest Service. A housewife put the kids in
day care and rented her Chevrolet Suburban to the Forest Service for
$80 a day, then hired herself out at $11.63 an hour to drive it. She
Ed Lesky, a retired personnel manager forced from his home by smoke,
worked 40 days as a firefighter and earned about $6,000.
Motels lost reservations from vacationers scared off by the fire, but
every room was booked once fire workers arrived in force.
Heavy smoke forced the cancellation of the Ravalli County Fair. But
then the Forest Service leased the fairgrounds as a fire camp, and
fair operators cleared $200,000, 10 times the profit they usually made
from the weeklong fair.
"We're debt-free now," says fairgrounds manager Gary Wiley. "It was a
blessing in disguise - but I'd rather not have that blessing again."
At the Bitterroot Forest headquarters, strangers kept appearing in
the parking lot, offering to rent back hoes and bulldozers.
Profiting from wildfire is part of Western history, says Stephen
Pyne, an Arizona State University professor who has written 11 books
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Northwest residents set
fires in the woods, knowing they would get jobs fighting them, PYne
Even now, he says, forest managers tend to spend huge amounts on
fighting fires and a pittance on preventing them or moderating their
damage by thinning the forests.
"The economics is complicated," says Pyne, noting that forest
management is not simply a calculation of how much to spend to save
What is the value of a human life threatened by fire? How much is a
favorite fishing spot worth? How do you measure the benefits of
ecological health, which may depend on periodic fires?
Pyne is encouraged that the extra money authorized by Congress
includes funds for research and for thinning the forests - but he
warns that such funding an be short-lived.
The Bitterroot National Forest received a 30 percent funding increase
for firefighting this year, which translates to about 30 extra jobs,
says Chuck Stanich, the forest's deputy fire management officer.
Forest officials are identifying areas of heavy timber as candidates
for fuel-reduction projects - work that could employ idled loggers.
And the economic boom continues, even without active flame.
Commerical mushroom pickers have flocked here to harvest morels,
which flourish the year after a forest fire. Experienced pickers can
make $300 a day.
Since May, a government work crew representating both sides of
wildfire's economic fallout has toiled on blackened hillsides around
the valley. Hired under a $2.6 million grant from the federal Labor
Department, crew members earn $8 to $17 per hour planting trees,
laying straw mats and rearranging logs to reduce erosion.
It's decent work in an area where jobs are scarce, but there's a
catch: To qualify, applicants had to show they'd been hurt by last
Crew boss Doug Bower guided fly-fishing clients on the Bitterroot
River last summer until the fires shut him down. Crew member Cathy
Palin watched helplessly as last year's drought killed her fields of
More than anyone, crew member Nathan Olson is aware of the ups and
downs of the fire economy.
A high-school science teacher in the down of Darby, Olson had just
finished building his dream home last summer when the fires broke
ouit. Forced to leave as flames approached, he went to work fighting
blazes elsewhere in the forest. When he returned home, he found
Now his 30-acre property, once crowded with pines, is a study in
black and gray.
Since the work crew's mission is to help private landowners, program
managers decided Olson's property was a fine place to do some
erosion-control work. And so, on a recent sweltering day, Olson found
himself being paid by the government to rehabilitate his own land.
Insurance paid for his destroyed home, and Olson has started to
rebuild. His property taxes are half what they used to be, since most
of the trees are dead. Wildflowers are blooming ,and Olson delights in
watching as elk and deer forage on the tender vegetation.
"There's always some good and bad out of fire," he said, wiping a
sooty hand across his brow.
Posted as a courtesy by
Daniel B. Wheeler
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