(LONG) Cost of fighting fires cast doubt on national plan
Daniel B. Wheeler
dwheeler at ipns.com
Tue Jul 2 00:56:10 EST 2002
>From The Oregonian, July 1, 2002, p A1
Cost of fighting fires cast doubt on national plan
Critics say the approach, designed to end squabbles and skyrocking
costs, is inherently flawed
By JIM BARNETT and Tom DETZEL, The Oregonian
WASHINGTON - As wildfires rage across the tinder-dry West this
summer, the government is unleashing torresnts of money for
helicopters, bulldozers and highly trained smoke jumpers in a fire
season that is threatening to become of the costliest ever.
But a new reality is taking hold in Washington: Firefighting and
prevention costs are spiraling to budget-busting heights. And with
more record-breaking fire seasons forecast, politicans fear there
won't be enough money to go arund.
The situation has provoked an unlikely shouting match. At a hearing
in May, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., normally an ally of President Bush,
accused the administration of failing to thin overgrown forests in his
state, where the biggest fires now rage.
"Somebody in the administration has to fight for what you say you
believe in," Kyl barked at representatives from the U.S. Forest
Service and the Department of Interior, the agencies that control most
federal firefighting dollars.
It wasn't supposed to come to this.
After record fires in 2000. President Clinton and the Republican
Congress approved the National Fire Plan, hoping to end perennial
squabbles by setting long-term goals and earmarking $2.2 billion a
year to meet them.
Oregon has been spared so far in the 2002 fire season. But with
double the normal number of acres already scorched nationwide, the
season is shaping up as a test of Washington's commitment to the
Critics cite Kyl's invective as just one signal that the fire plan
might not succeed. At its core, the plan turns decades of fire policy
on its head by emphaasizing prevention and fuel reduction instead of
just putting out all fires.
But the plan contains an inherent conflict, critics said. Although
much of the fire money is earmarked for thinning forests and planning
for contained fires, federal land managers can also tap those funds to
snuff out wildfires in their ealiest stages - and may be forced to do
so in big fire years.
The result, critics said, is a firefighting bureaucracy better
equipped than ever to undermine its own objectives, particularly when
timberlands are dry and politicians demand quick action to protect
constitutents, as in Arizona, where the biggest fire in the state's
history has consumed hundreds of rural homes.
"The National Fire Plan is nothing more than a big pot of money,"
said Jonathan Oppenhemier, an associate of the Idaho COnservation
League and a leading critic of the plan since its inception. "You
could say it is destined for failure becuase it doesn't redefine how
we respond to fire."
Federal land-management agencies, especially the Forest Service, have
a decades-long tradition of fighting fires as if going to war. They
throw in every available resource, even against long odds of success
and with only second thoughts of accounting for cost
The suppression policy was adopted to preserve valuable timber
particularly in the West, where the threat of fire was often greatest.
It also made for good politics: The effort was expected, and the
agency and its firefighters were showered with gratitude.
"You almost always have to spend a lot of money to do a big show of
ofrce just to demonstrate you're doing everythying you possibly can
and, I would add parentheically, even if it may not do a lot of good,"
said Jim Furnish, a former deputy Forest Service chief who retired
Over time, the policy altered the natural cycle of fire and forest
health. Forests across the West grew thick with underbrush and small
trees that fueled small sparks into stand-destroying conflagrations.
Federal policy changed in 1995, after the deaths of 14 firefighters,
including nine from Pinreville, in the Storm King fire in Colorado.
>From then on, federal land managers were told to identify areas that
could be allowed to burn with little risk to life or property.
But altering ingrained agency culture was harder than expected, said
Michael Rains, a Forest Service researchers. Land managers still err
on the side of caution, haunted by the prospect of losing a fire that
seems to be under control.
"If you spend 60 years in a certain way, then it's difficult to begin
to change that," said Rains, who specializes in studying large fires.
"When you want to order u a tanker, you order up a tanker. You just do
it. You don't really thing about any more than that."
High cost of small fires
Spending patterns identified by The Oregonian suggest that although
fire plan mony might have prevented some catastrophic fires, the extra
funds also may have the potential to reinforce wasteful, if
The newspaper analyzed records of 130,000 fires fought by the Forest
Service from 1990 through 2001 to determine how much the agency spent
to extinguish each acre and also to track cost trends over time.
The analysis showed that the cost of fighting small fires, those
fewer than 1,000 acres, soared as fire plan money was made available.
The cost reached $2,252 per acre in 2001 after holding steady at less
than $2,000 for seven years.
The trend suggests that new resources had been trained on small fires
before they threatened homes and businesses that have encroqached on
wildlands, said Mark Rey, undersecretary of agriculture who oversees
the Forest Service.
"If we suppress them, we're going to incure a significant cost per
acre compared to if we lose them," Rey said.
Indeed, one tenet of the fire plan is to protect communities and
homes near or on federal land with a high fire risk.
But the cost of fighting big fires, those burning more than 10,000
acres, also climbed as fire plan money became available, setting a
record cost of $660 per acre in 2001, the data show.
Critics said the trend is evidence the agencies persist in throwing
resources at big fires with the same old institutional inertia. If the
fire plan were working as envisioned, the cost of fighting big fires
would go down, they said.
"It just seems like we're stuck on this hamster wheel of, you get a
big fire, you put all kinds of resources on it, and then basically
pray for the weather to change," said Furnish, the former Forest
Service dputy chief. "It seems lik there ought to be a better way."
Pouring money on blazes
This year, with kiln-dry conditions across vast swaths of the West
and more than twice the average acreage ablaze, suppression costs are
piling up fast.
Federal agencies are spending $12 million a day to fight major fires,
dispatching a huge array of equipment and an army of 15,000
firefighters to the front lines of blazes that by Sunday covered
nearly 1 million acres.
When more resources are aailable, local fire managers use them.
Rather than risk losing control of a fire, they often order as much
firefighting power as regional commanders allow.
"As our intiial incident commanders began to realize things were no
longer the same out there with fuel loading, they began to make
decisions quicker and, in my mind, better," said Tom Andrade, former
assistant fire manager for the Deschutes National Forest. "It used to
be that you'd go to a fire and you'd see one or two helicopters. Now
it's not unusual to see three, four and five. And they run $3,500 to
$4,000 an hour."
That's not all. A single air tanker can cost $4,000 a day, plus
$3,000 an hour to fly it and another $3,500 for a load of retardant. A
20-person fire crew costs $6,000 a day. Renting a bus to move crews
can cost $450 a day.
Budgets are already in tatters.
The Forest Service, which traidtionally spends the most, has eaten
through almost all of its $321 million fire suppression budget and
predicts it will need more than twice that amount to last through the
Likewise, the four Interior Department agencies that fight fires have
spent half of their $160 million suppression budget.
The fire season of 2000 still stands as a modern record, when 8.4
milion acres burned and federal wildlife agencies spent a record $1.4
billion on suppression. But the ferocity of this year's fires in
rekindling memories of two years ago.
"We'll have years where we'[ll probably have burned more acres and
probably have expended more money," said Steward Lundgren, a budget
analyst for the Forest Service. "But the importance of this one is the
great loss of acres and great number of houses in a short period of
The Rodeo-Chediski blaze in Arizona has burned through 452,000 acres,
Since it began June 18, the fire has destroyed at least 423 homes and
has cost $21 million to fight. Two big Colorado wildfires wiped out
190 homes and ran up a $53 million firefighting tab.
Back in Washington, the mountain toll of destruction is making
politicians nervous that agencies won't have the time, money and
attention to get back to the job of preventing more big fires in
And they have good reason to worry, according to the General
Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
In reports issued this year, the GAO said that although Congress
nearly doubled annual spending undr the fire plan to $2.2 billion,
Forest Service and Interior Department agencies had fallen short of
meeting the plan's goals.
More than half of federal land units lacked complete fire management
plans, the GAO said, concluding that the agencies "have not
effectively determined the amount of firefighting personnel and
equipment needed" to fight wildfires.
Posted as a courtesy by
Daniel B. Wheeler
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