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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 Carolyn P. Rice

Articles Worth Reading: Feb. 25, 2019

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The Senate Approved the Natural Resources Management Act expanding existing public lands, creating new national monuments, protecting miles of rivers from development, and preventing mining around Yellowstone and North Cascades National Parks. Controversies arose over a provision that could allow the return of hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land to Alaska Natives. These brought into clearer view the different priorities and fraught history of conservationists and Indigenous peoples. The Washington Post The Guardian The Washington Post (Op-Ed) High Country News

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A Multi-Part Exploration of the Colorado River’s Challenges Ends With an Ode to the River’s Former Wildness and a look at restoration efforts. Today, the Colorado River is a highly engineered river, plagued by invasive species of plants and fish. Some of its most biodiverse regions are man-made, and their future hangs in the balance with the future of water. Yale Environment 360

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Articles Worth Reading: Feb. 11, 2019

New Restrictions on Colorado River Withdrawals in Dry Times Are Close, but the federal Bureau of Reclamation says, in effect, “close only counts in the game of horseshoes.” The Arizona state legislature met the bureau’s deadline as it agreed to the drought contingency plan formulated by all three states in the river’s lower basin, but the final deals with Native tribes and with California’s Imperial Irrigation District aren’t done yet. The arguments go on. Cronkite News

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Sustainable Development and Gentrification Do Not Have to Go Hand in Hand. An affordable housing project in an industrial, low-income neighborhood of Portland could show the country how green infrastructure can help alleviate poverty and keep communities intact. This project includes weatherization of mobile homes and sustainable landscaping. High Country News

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Articles Worth Reading: Jan. 28, 2019

Wildfires Can Cause Thunderstorms, and the world is witnessing more of these as fires become more common and more intense. Scientists still struggle to understand the exact mechanisms behind the storms, but the effects have become clearer. Lightning can spark additional fires, and winds can hamper firefighting efforts. Particles and gases in the clouds can affect weather patterns on the same scale as small volcanoes. Mother Jones

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Decrepit Dams in Washington State May Flood Towns Downstream. A recent wildfire made the landscape more prone to runoff, and the dams cannot store the increased winter rainfall associated with a warmer climate. Attempts to repair and modify the dams have highlighted the financial and political challenges of managing remote wilderness. as local agriculture and salmon habitat rely on the shrinking summer water supply. The Seattle Times

Animals From Insects to Wolves May Suffer From Construction Along the U.S.-Mexico Border. Physical barriers and habitat loss can separate animal populations and limit migration. Over 1,500 native plants and animals in the region could be affected by construction of a wall, according to a 2018 report signed by nearly 3,000 scientists. The New York Times

Articles Worth Reading: Jan. 15, 2019

Pacific Northwest Farmers Have Silos Full of Unsold Legumes. The price of garbanzo beans fell by more than half after changes to U.S. trade policy and sanctions on China last year reduced exports. Farmers had already expanded their production, and now they must find a way to pay their debts. Oregon Public Broadcasting

The City of Spokane Is Trying to Clean Up Its Groundwater, which has been polluted by industrial toxins since World War II. Washington state has recently increased the strictness of its water quality standards, but implementation of these standards faces financial, political, and technological challenges. The pollution has accumulated to dangerous levels in the Spokane River fish, which is of particular consequence to the diet and health of the indigenous Spokane people. High Country News

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Articles Worth Reading: Jan. 7, 2019

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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

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U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

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