(LONG) Cost of fighting fires cast doubt on national plan

leingan s011740 at mailserv.cuhk.edu.hk
Fri Jul 19 12:08:15 EST 2002

Daniel B. Wheeler <dwheeler at ipns.com> wrote in message
news:6dafee1b.0207012156.5c833b3d at posting.google.com...
> 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
> 10-year plan.
> 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."
> Behavior patterns
> 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
> last year.
> 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
> well-intentioned, behavior.
> 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
> year.
> 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
> time."
> 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.
> Budget battle
> 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
> future years.
> 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
> www.oregonwhitetruffles.com

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