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Are Forest Managers Robbing the Future to Pay for Present-Day Fires?

Felicity Barringer
Mar 5 2018

In the federal government, wildfires have a lesser claim on disaster funds. As fires burn with greater magnitude and frequency, the cost of fighting them is increasingly borne by money earmarked for prevention.

Three large aerial tankers make their last passes of the day to apply water or fire retardant slurry over the Nuns Fire outside of Napa, California in October 2017

All-Out Battle Three large aerial tankers make their last passes of the day to apply water or fire retardant slurry over the Nuns Fire outside of Napa, California in October 2017. USDA via via Flickr
 

By Felicity Barringer

Firefighters from the Platte Canyon Crew fighting 2011’s Wallow Fire near Greer, Arizona. Kari Greer/US Forest Service
Firefighters from the Platte Canyon Crew fighting 2011’s Wallow Fire near Greer, Arizona.  Kari Greer/US Forest Service
 

Western wildfires are remembered by their names. These are never forgotten by those most affected, whether because an Interstate was closed, a beautiful landscape was shrouded in smoke, or a home or a neighborhood was lost, or they walked on cinders with the smell of cold ashes all around, or the worst — the fire killed people they knew.

Around Prescott, Arizona, they remember the Yarnell Hill Fire and the 19 firefighters it killed.

In eastern Arizona’s White Mountains, they remember 2011’s Wallow Fire, the state’s largest. On California’s central coast, they cannot forget that it took three months and over $230 million to put out 2016's Soberanes Fire. Near San Francisco, toxic rubble from the deadly, fast-moving Tubbs fire still litters Santa Rosa.

For the federal and state officials, the names evoke statistics — acres burned, homes destroyed and dollars needed to put wildfires out. Across the West, these numbers have grown dramatically. But, unlike the East’s coastal states facing hurricanes, or those in Tornado Alley in the Midwest, the states in the West’s firelands have no automatic claim on federal disaster aid. Fire disasters, in federal law, are different.

Last summer, as the Lodgepole Complex of fires in north-central Montana burned more than 250,000 acres, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, without explanation, denied the state’s first request for disaster relief. Under political pressure, it eventually relented.

Since fire disasters have a lesser claim on general disaster funds, they have increasingly been paid for by siphoning away money earmarked to prevent forest fires by reducing the dead and living trees and the underbrush that makes them worse. Robbing the forests’ future to pay for present disasters is becoming routine.

The West’s Summertime Menace Spreads into the Spring and Fall

When the Thomas Fire in southern California burned through December and past New Years Day 2018, it marked a striking expansion of the West’s fire season. Click here to view the progression of the fire in the interactive map below. The map, a co-production of the Bill Lane Center for the American West and EcoWest, displays wildfires nationwide from over the past 15 years.

Click on a fire symbol to zoom into an animation, or use the slider to navigate over the years.

Interactive Map: Wildfires in the US Since 2003

Most Expensive Wildfires – Estimated Suppression Costs   
Click bars to show fire animations above

Sources: National Interagency Fire Center; News Reports;
Map: Geoff McGhee, David Kroodsma, Erik Hazzard, and Mitch Tobin, Bill Lane Center for the American West and EcoWest

US Forest Service at the Center of Wildfire Response

The federal Forest Service is the agency at the point of the spear, fighting wildfires and paying suppression costs. Two decades ago, these costs represented 15 percent of its budget; now they absorb 55 percent of the total. When fire costs break the planned budget, as they did two of the last three years, the agency must find another way to pay for them.

Going Up in Smoke

Fire suppression costs for Federal agencies, 1985-2017

Rising Fire Suppression Costs for the Federal Government, 1985-2017
Bill Lane Center for the American West
 

In 2015, according to an agency representative, when the federal cost of fighting wildfires exceeded $1.4 billion, the forest service borrowed $700 million from other accounts, including $22 million from a fuels reduction program.

Why are wildfires getting more expensive to fight? One reason is the legacy of Smokey the Bear — the decades of the 20th century when the mantra of forest managers, bolstered by the Smokey the Bear advertising campaign, was avoiding fires and putting them out quickly. This allowed trees and brush that would normally have burned in small fires to remain in place. As this fuel accumulated, fires got worse.

Other factors, according to Mark Rey, a former Undersecretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources, are longer fire seasons, rising temperatures, more trees killed by beetles who are no longer killed by cold winters — all the results of climate change.

But a central issue is the growing number of people seeking to live in the wild. This cost driver he said, “is the settlement patterns, part of the explosion of houses in the wildland-urban interface.” The area, known to forest policy aficionados by its acronym, the WUI (pronounced WOO-ee), has various definitions, but no matter the methodology, all agree the number of homes at risk has dramatically increased in size over the past three decades. Their growth is mapped by the SILVIS project at the University of Wisconsin.

Ray Rasker, of Montana’s Headwaters Economics, reported four years ago that only 16 percent of land near forests has been developed. When half the remainder is developed, the report said, “annual firefighting costs could explode to between $2.3 billion and $4.3 billion.”

Wildland Urban Interface as identified by the University of Wisconsin's SILVIS lab. Bill Lane Center for the American West

WUI Development Opens New Fronts in Wildfire War

Smoke from the Thomas Fire hovers over Ventura County, California in December 2017.

Smoke from the Thomas Fire hovers over Ventura County, California in December 2017.USDA via Flickr
 

As Mark Rey said, “You can find a lot of ways to save money by being cost-effective but those advances are going to be swamped because of the number of places you have to defend.”

Fires in the WUI require aggressive defense, the price society pays for individuals' desire to live away from civilization. Yarnell, Arizona (map), where 19 firefighters died, was described by Fernanda Santos in her book “The Fire Line” as “a hideaway for hippies, artists, retirees, and others looking to forget or be forgotten.

The cost of suppression is the worry of the Forest Service, state firefighting services like CALFire, and local departments. In each of the last three years, the Forest Service has spent more than $1.6 billion fighting fires; in 2017 it was $2.4 billion. A firefighting budget reflects the average cost of firefighting for the last decade. In recent years, it has seldom been enough.

“You can find a lot of ways to save money by being cost-effective but those advances are going to be swamped because of the number of places you have to defend.”

“When that mechanism was set up, the 10-year average was a number that wasn’t fluctuating wildly,” Mr. Rey said. “And the forest service was managing significant trust funds which had cash balances that could be borrowed from without affecting other programs. Trust funds were a manifestation of timber sale program.” Now, he said, "the timber sale program is much smaller … Those trust funds are exhausted very quickly.” The service "goes through triage — to keep borrowing of funds in same area, the first place to borrow is fuels reduction.”

In Congress, Potential Fixes Run Aground

The irony isn’t lost on lawmakers from the West. For the last several years, senators, led by Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and Michael Crapo, an Idaho Republican, have pushed legislation letting states with fire disasters draw on the federal emergency funds available to states with hurricane or tornado disasters.

The legislation, a congressional aide explained, “changes the definition of natural disasters to include wildfires — then make an adjustment to create room in the budget so we’re not robbing from other natural disasters.” But despite bipartisan regional support, the bill has been sidelined after being used as a bargaining chip by other legislators, congressional aides explained.

In Mr. Rasker's view, “There’s always someone who says: ‘Here’s an opportunity to force the forest service to do something.’ They have some Machiavellian idea of how the forest service should handle management.” Often those blocking the bills are looking for less environmental regulation and more timber cutting.

“It’s a pity,” Mr. Rasker added. “It really hurts the communities that get caught in the middle.”


In 2006, California’s Department of Forestry changed its name and logo to CALFire.
 

In California, a Brighter Picture Clouded by Ever-Bigger Fires

California has a different budget system than the federal Forest Service. So far, according to Scott McLean, a CALFire spokesman, has managed to pay for the fire disasters that keep on coming, though in the last two years CALFire exceeded its budget and needed to take money from the state’s rainy day fund.

“The fires are burning with more intensity,” Mr. McLean said. “They are faster. They are started with more resources. We had significant fires throughout the year. The Tubbs fire was the most destructive fire in California history.” Four years in the past decade, state firefighting costs were about $500 million or more. Eleven years ago, the California Department of Forestry changed its title to reflect reality. It became CALFire.

No one has publicly suggested the U.S. Forest Service be called FEDFire — though that name would reflect the evolving reality. With another drought peering over the horizon, fire dangers in the West continue to grow, and the original purpose of the Forest Service — supporting healthy forests — continues to be overshadowed by the job of fighting fires.

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Western Articles and Media Elsewhere
Compiled by Felicity Barringer and Rebecca Nelson

Articles Worth Reading: Dec. 17, 2018

Pollution on the California-Mexico Border, Some Carried by the New River, flows though the region. Some of it wafts through the air that carries factory fumes over Mexico and Calexico, Some rises from fetid garbage dumps. It all does serious harm to the health of local residents. A series of articles show smokestacks, traffic exhaust, dust, and smoke from trash fires, often leave the cities blanketed in hazy air. The pollution is linked to high rates of respiratory illnesses and deaths. The Desert Sun

We Knew the California Snowpack Was Declining. Now We Know How Fast: 79 Percent by the century’s end. As it fades, much less snowmelt can be drawn on to fill huge reservoirs such as Shasta, Oroville and Folsom. All this as the state’s population and farm economy continue to grow. The new reality that will require fundamental changes in the way California and the federal government have operated the state’s water system for nearly 100 years. San Jose Mercury-News

In Sacramento, Two New Decisions on Dividing the Waters. In one, the state’s top water agency decides to send more water to Delta fish populations on the San Joaquin River, angering farmers and cities. In another, the governor defers to the federal government and makes more water available to farmers. Sacramento Bee
Sacramento Bee

A Federal Ultimatum Declared on a Colorado River drought contingency plan. Get it done by January 31, said the Bureau of Reclamation Representative told the seven states negotiating the plan — or we’ll do it for you. California and Arizona are the last states to fall into line. But this plan, when it is final, could be a bridge to another agreement to manage the water world of the Southwest as the climate changes and the water disappears. Also: how to think about the future. Denver Post Cronkite News John Fleck

Big Utilities Plan Power Shutoffs to Avoid Sparking Wildfires, while the experience of the Camp Fire indicates that small local power grids enhance the resilience of areas in the wildland-urban interface. Utility Drive

Should Washington State Breach Dams to Preserve Orcas? The decline of Puget Sound’s orca population has many probable causes: toxins in the water, noise from boats and lack of food. Chinook salmon are its primary food, and salmon runs are feeble, despite tens of millions spent by hydropower authorities to bolster salmon runs. As part of a $1 billion-plus save-the-orca effort, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee unveiled a $750,000 plan to investigate the impact should four Lower Snake River dams be removed. It drew criticism from the northwest’s congressional Republicans. Idaho Statesman

Articles Worth Reading: Dec. 4, 2018

There’s a Bullseye on the American West, When One Looks at Climate Change and its economic and ecological consequences, according to a recent federal report. The report emphasizes growing water scarcity, wildfires, sea-level rise, and health costs brought on by climate change. Tribal, local, and state governments are working on climate adaptation plans. High Country News Denver Post Arizona Daily Star

The Private Firefighter Industry Grows. In response to worsening fires across the West, demand has increased for private firefighter companies. But private firefighters are not an affordable option for many homeowners. Mountain West News Bureau/Elemental

A Sanitation Crisis at the Border. Water contaminated with sewage could have health impacts in communities along the U.S.-Mexico border, whose residents are advocating for water treatment plants and updates to infrastructure. Ticklish relations between the United States and Mexico complicate sewage management policies. NRDC

A Measure to Cut Back Wyoming’s Wilderness Study Areas Advances. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Liz Cheney, would release around 400,000 acres of federal wilderness study areas in Big Horn, Lincoln and Sweetwater counties to general management, eliminating special protections. Park County commissioners are hoping that the bill will be amended to also release the local McCullough Peaks and High Lakes wilderness study areas to less restrictive management. The Powell Tribune

Recycling Scandal Crosses State Lines. A group of Arizona residents are accused of stealing over $16.1 million from California’s beverage recycling program by bringing in thousands of bottles and cans from Arizona. The CalRecycle program gives California residents an opportunity to earn back a tax added to bottled goods by recycling their bottles and cans at special facilities. This is the first recycling scandal in California to cross state jurisdictions. Arizona Republic

Articles Worth Reading: Nov. 20, 2018

Raging Fires Made California’s Air 60 Times Dirtier than world health standards last week, and more than 10 times worse around the San Francisco Bay area, as smoke from the Camp Fire in Paradise sat on communities 200 miles away. Smoke, not flames, is the deadliest public health risk from wildfires. Bloomberg Grist

As Lake Mead’s Levels Drop, Can Seven States in the Colorado River Basin Agree on a drought contingency plan to share the predicted water shortage? A rebellion by two Arizona agencies may impel the six other states to make decisions on their own. Op-ed articles by the state’s governor and a former Interior Secretary scold the agencies for their intransigence. As Gov. Doug Ducey wrote, “The foundational purpose of a multi-state drought contingency plan is to transition to a drier future….However…demands for water and money to mitigate reductions are growing to insurmountable proportions.” Phoenix New Times Arizona Capitol Times Arizona Republic

Gray Wolves’ Protection Under the Endangered Species Act May Not Last, if a bill just passed by Congress becomes law. The measure ends federal protection from the wolves in the 48 contiguous states. In the Northwest, where wolves are considered endangered in the western two-thirds of Oregon and Washington, state agencies would take over. Environmental groups say the wolves’ recovery goals are not far off, but may not be reached if the federal government bows out. Oregon Public Broadcasting

With The New Approval of An Industrial Solar Facility in the California Desert, and the news that its electricity has already been sold, the state, which is already ahead of its legislated goals for renewable energy development, will give a big boost to the national boom in renewable energy — a national success that will eventually face strong competition from China. Clean Technica Solar Industry Magazine Solar Industry Magazine Time

Their Canadian Cousins Thrive, But the Orcas of Puget Sound Face An Existential Crisis. While they are the most studied whales in the world, they among the most endangered orcas. As the population of Canadian orcas has grown by 250 percent since 1974, and is at 309, the population of Puget Sound’s pods, now 74, has grown barely nine percent in the same period. Experts blame the impact of the expanding human and industrial presence in the orcas’ range. The three southern pods have not successfully reproduced in three years. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has put together a task force on recovering the whales. Seattle Times

Articles Worth Reading: Nov. 7, 2018

Six Western States Have Voted on Contested Environmental Policies. Five of Them Failed. Some ballot initiatives gave midterm election voters a chance to support salmon populations in Alaska or to support a fee on carbon emissions or to oppose recent environmental rollbacks involving drilling. Oil, gas, and mining companies poured money in opposition to statewide ballot measures that could increase costs or diminish revenues. The story of the campaigns and the work of environmental groups ran before the election. The results came today, in places ranging from Colorado to Washington State to Alaska. Mother Jones Denver Post Montana Standard PV Magazine Seattle Times KTUU Anchorage

The Navajo Tribe’s Future Without Its Major Employer and With a New President. As the various financial schemes for prolonging the life of the Navajo Generating Station fell apart, tribal members who work there must choose between finding employment where the new owners assign them, or staying on the reservation until the plant closes a year from now, then having a small chance of any job that pays as well. Their decisions will be made against a new political backdrop, as Joseph Nez, at 43, was just elected the youngest Navajo president ever. ASU/Cronkite News Indian Z News

Rare Dinosaur Fossils Are Threatened by the reduction of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Vast areas of land that may contain important paleontological discoveries are now vulnerable to potential energy development. About 250,000 acres of land with a high potential for fossils are being considered for mineral development. Salt Lake Tribune

A Water Reckoning in Colorado. Farming communities in the North Fork Valley of Colorado are water-rich in an era of increasing water scarcity. Farmers continue to use high volumes of water for irrigation. However, with climate change, the community will have to change outdated and inefficient systems in order to share water more cooperatively. High Country News

Indigenous Food Sovereignty in British Columbia. Activist Jessie Housty, a member of the Haíłzaqv nation, is educating young people in her community about their traditional food sources and culture. Her efforts are part of a larger movement to address food insecurity and malnutrition in indigenous communities through providing access to cultural foods. Civil Eats

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