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

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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...& the Best

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

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

Articles Worth Reading: Oct. 23, 2018

President Trump Plans to Ease Water Rules in the West by streamlining existing regulations. After signing a memo last week, he claimed he will increase the West’s water supply by hastening projects in California and the Pacific Northwest. But some farming communities, environmentalists, and the Winnemem Wintu tribe oppose his action. Critics of Trump’s memo assert that his plan would weaken environmental regulations, hurt local communities and ecosystems, and flood sacred tribal sites. ASU/Cronkite News Guardian Associated Press Salt Lake Tribune

Spokane Considers How to Adapt to Climate Change. In light of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, communities in Spokane are planning how to adapt to the consequences of climate change. People are monitoring rivers and analyzing water consumption to prepare for decreases in snowmelt. The Colville Tribe is planting heat-resistant trees. The Spokesman-Review

For Imperial Beach, Managed Retreat May Be the Plan. Facing threats of increased flooding due to rising seas, the mayor of Imperial City is proposing that the community relocate coastal homes and business farther inland, as a managed-retreat strategy. However, the process of managed retreat raises political and ethical questions that have sparked controversy among community members. High Country News

In the Face of a Water Supply Crisis Along the Colorado River, local water conservation programs in farming communities can foster drought resilience. Policymakers should consider these community-oriented programs when developing drought mitigation strategies. Water Deeply

Managing the Colorado River. Demand for water and electricity have had a significant impact on the Grand Canyon and Colorado River ecosystems. Taking climate change, recreation, and other challenges into account, biologists are exploring the current challenges of river conservation. Arizona Republic

Articles Worth Reading: Oct. 9, 2018

Wildfires Don’t Hurt Real Estate Markets. Researchers from University of Las Vegas determined that real estate markets in Colorado rebound within a year or two of a wildfire, encouraging development in high risk areas. People continue to move to fire-prone areas due to their scenic appeal and proximity to cities. High Country News

Water Disputes in Colorado. A cop investigates conflicts over stolen water in the Four Corners region. His work involves enforcing complex water statures and confronting local tensions over water rights that sometimes turn violent. KUNC Radio

The Potential of Stormwater Capture. In California, communities are expanding their stormwater management programs to include aquifer recharge and irrigation in addition to controlling floods. Captured stormwater could provide Californians with a water supply that is resilient to climate change. Pacific Institute

An Air Quality Monitoring Program Failed to Alert Residents of Seeley, California to the danger of particulate pollution near a local elementary school. The nonprofit responsible for the monitoring, Comite Civico de Valle, seeks to expand its program to other areas despite controversy over its practices. Desert Sun

Bee Thieves Exploit California’s Almond Harvest. Bees play a crucial role in the pollination of almonds in the Central Valley, but colony collapse disorder threatens apiculture. Recent increases in stolen beehives have exacerbated the industry’s challenges. Reveal/CIR

Articles Worth Reading: Sept. 25, 2018

In California’s Central Valley, Air Pollution Levels Are Very Local. Residents, like the mother of a young asthmatic profiled here, need to know exactly what they are. “Regulatory agencies think regionally,” said the head of the Central California Asthma Collaborative, a Fresno-based nonprofit. This group and others, helped by new state laws, try to increase the air monitoring in a region with some of the country’s most polluted air. Kaiser Health News

Gender Diversity and California Firefighting. Starting on August 1st, the Donnell Fire burned 36,000 acres in Stanislaus National Forest, and firefighters now have it at least 90% contained. A photographer shares the stories of firefighters tackling California’s Donnell Fire and challenging traditional gender roles in their careers. High Country News

With Climate Change, Algal Blooms Contaminate Oregon Drinking Water. Last May, Oregon declared a civil emergency when toxic algae contaminated Salem’s drinking water, posing health risks to children and nursing mothers. Recently, Oregon became the second state to require testing of potable water for algal toxins. The new regulations are part of the Oregon’s plan to address how climate change is affecting its water quality. KSUT

National Parks Are Warming Twice As Fast as the rest of the country, according to a new study. It focused on 417 protected areas and found they were 1.8 degrees warmer in 2010 than they had been in 1885, double the national average rate, and precipitation was down 12 percent in the same period, compared to three percent nationally. Yale Environment 360

Los Angeles Proposes Giant Hydropower Battery for Hoover Dam, but the project faces many legal and political roadblocks due to Colorado River’s shrinking water supply, which has been a source of conflict between California, Arizona, and Nevada. Los Angeles aims to create a three billion dollar hydropower storage system, consisting of twenty miles of pipeline that connect to Hoover Dam. Water Deeply

Wyoming Turns to Wind Power. Although Wyoming is America’s top coal producer, the state is now garnering increased support for wind power, as the coal industry declines. Proponents of Wyoming’s developing wind power industry emphasize its economic importance, while skeptics raise environmental and aesthetic concerns about how wind turbines will impact the landscape. Natural Resources Defense Council

Articles Worth Reading: Sept. 11, 2018

In 27 Years, California Plans to Eliminate Carbon From Its Electrical Grid. That’s the central aim of legislation signed Monday by Gov. Jerry Brown. A year after a similar bill failed, the new measure underlines California’s desire to be the nation’s leader on working to slow climate change — the shifting weather that has turbocharged the state’s wildfires and caused increasing destruction from Redding to Santa Barbara. Meanwhile, wind developers are eyeing the California coast as a place to create new renewable energy for a changing grid. InsideClimate News Utility Dive

A Floating Boom a Third of a Mile Long is the Newest Garbage Collector in the Pacific Ocean. Its mission: start cleaning up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This gyre of sailing detritus has an estimated 1.8 trillion objects rotating slowly between California and Hawaii, and California. The nonprofit Ocean Cleanup is investing $20 million in the project. But can it really remove the 87,000 tons of plastic? New York Times/Associated Press

The Killer of Swaths of Bigleaf Maples in Washington State Is Unknown, but its impact is being felt from Washington State south to California. These trees, whose leaves can stretch a foot across, can grow 100 feet tall. Their impressive silhouettes mean that the landscape changes dramatically as they die. The U.S. Forest Service and the University of Washington, and the Washington state Department of Natural Resources have been studying the maples, but no diseases or insects have been found in significant numbers. So no known culprit. Seattle Times/Tacoma News Tribune

Bighorn Sheep and Moose Tell Their Friends Where to Go for the best food, a new study shows. The notion that migration behaviors, following the green wave of food around the West, was a learned behavior and not a product of genetic inheritance, had been around for a while. The thought was “they just have to learn how to do this,” said Matthew Kauffman, an ecologist at the University of Wyoming. So he set up a study involving bighorn sheep that were transplanted into an area unfamiliar to them, but where established herds existed. Without genetic coding for this particular migration, they did it anyway. National Geographic

Some Called Him ‘The Renaissance Man of the West;’ His Maps Combined Geography, History and Whimsy into one package. Jo Mora, an immigrant from Uruguay, did some sculpture and coin design before finding maps to be his metier. One observer said “They’re almost like books,” to be perused in bits and pieces at several sittings. The maps he left are cartographic cartoons, telling not just the shape of the state, but the stories of its places. Atlas Obscura

Articles Worth Reading: Sept. 1, 2018

Hunters Have Waited More Than 40 Years To Shoot Grizzlies around Yellowstone National Park. The wait was almost over, when a federal district judge delayed the hunt for two weeks to study whether the federal Fish and Wildlife Service erred in lifting protections from the bears. Judge Dana Christiansen wrote, “harm to…members [of endangered species] is irreparable because once a member of an endangered species has been injured, the task of preserving that species becomes all the more difficult.” Casper Star-Tribune Montana Free Press

Canada’s Transmoutain Pipeline, Whose Growth Was A Key Aim of the Canadian Government, Just Lost its bid for expansion in court. The Canadian Federal Court of Appeal overturned approval of the pipeline because the government failed to adequately consider native nations’ concerns and didn’t take environmental impacts into account. Opposition groups had argued that the risks of oil spills in the Salish Sea — home to an already-endangered killer whales — and the potential hazards of increased petroleum tanker traffic are too high a price to pay for an economic boom. The expansion could have tripled the 750-mile pipeline’s capacity bringing up to 890.000 barrels a day from tar sands in Edmonton to the coast of British Columbia. Oregon Public Broadcasting Grist Reuters

Facebook and the Navajo Nation Commit to Renewables, but on very different scales. The year-old Solar Project – built mostly by Navajo workers – is the largest tribally-owned renewable power plant in the country and has been operating a year. Generating 27.3 megawatts, it provides enough power for 18,000 Navajo nation homes – the same number that had been without electricity a decade ago. Facebook, the social media giant in Menlo Park, California, is also expanding its uses for renewable power, but on a far vaster level. It has committed to powering its global operations with completely renewable energy by the end of 2020, in party by positioning data centers near electrical grids that can accommodate more renewables. In the last year Facebook has signed contracts for more than 2.5 gigawatts of renewables, Cronkite News/Elemental Utility Dive

Lake Mead Has Been Using Lake Powell to Keep Its Levels Up and postpone the moment when drought contingency plans are triggered because its level has dipped below 1,075 feet. But scientists now report that this draining of Lake Powell can’t go on forever: it is now 48 percent full, while Lake Mead is 38 percent full. “We’re draining Lake Powell to prop it up,” said one scientist. Arizona Republic

Is The Current Drought Just the Beginning? David Gutzler, a climate scientist at the University of New Mexico, says “It is possible that the next big megadrought is upon us, and we’re right in the middle of it.” The snowpack that supplies the upper half of the Rio Grade has decreased 25 percent in the past 40 years. The Elephant Butte reservoir, the largest in the upper Rio Grande, is just six percent full, down from 24 percent last winter. Some 500 years ago, tree rings tell us, a megadrought hit the Southwest just as the Spanish arrived; the population was decimated. And a study shows that climate change increase the chances of a megadrought to 70 percent or more. Quartz

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With the new year and winter quarter approaching, we are pleased to highlight two new courses that will be taught by affiliates of the Bill Lane Center.