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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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Western Articles and Media Elsewhere
Compiled by Felicity Barringer, Josh Lappen, and Alessandro Hall

Feb. 15, 2018

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New Map Visualizes Fragmentation of Western Rivers. Although the American West is known for free and flowing rivers, more than 49 percent of its river miles have been modified from their natural state by dams, diversion, or development. A new interactive map showcases the regions disappearing waterways. Center for American Progress

Across the West, Engineers, Energy Companies Target Untapped Geothermal Resources. A new technology called enhanced geothermal systems could unlock up to 500,000 megawatts of energy across the region. In the heart of the Mojave Desert, one company is already planning a power plant to harness the abundant renewable resource. NPR

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Wyoming Legislators Advocate for Yellowstone Conservation Fee. Seeking to capitalize on Yellowstone National Park’s four million annual visitors, lawmakers in Wyoming have proposed that the National Park Service implement a conservation fee. The revenue generated would help protect wildlife outside the park in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, including parts of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Casper Star-Tribune

Feb. 2, 2018

Montana Property Owners Block Access to Public Lands as Class Tensions Simmer. An estimated 4 million acres of public lands are landlocked by private, government, or tribal lands. From Wyoming to Idaho to Utah, public access through private land is a hot-button issue in the West. In an effort to broker agreements and settle disputes, Montana has hired the first public lands access specialist in the country. The Guardian

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Oil Industry Shows Signs of Recovery in Wyoming, but Jobs Return More Slowly. In 2014, the plummeting cost of oil caused layoffs across the state. During the years of economic downtown, companies learned how to operate more efficiently. Now the industry’s resurgence is outpacing its labor market. Casper Star-Tribune

Soil-Fumigant Ban Promises to Transform California’s Strawberry Industry. For years, hiring companies to fumigate soil was standard practice, but new regulations to protect consumer health and surrounding ecosystems will have wide-ranging effects for the industry’s producers and consumers. Treehugger

Jan. 22, 2018

Uranium Mining Industry Seeks Resurgence in Navajo Nation Borderlands. Mining companies aggressively lobbied Secretary Zinke to shrink Bears Ears National Monument and lawmakers to ease mining restrictions, creating new opportunities for America’s nuclear industry. But members of the neighboring Navajo Nation, still recovering from the consequences of mining decades ago, worry about the health effects. The NEW YORK TIMES

Rock Art Experts Spar with BLM, Energy Companies Over Fate of Utah Petroglyphs. The Bureau of Land Management has begun leasing parts of Emery County for oil and gas drilling. As the energy industry and preservationists argue over potential adverse effects, one photographer is determined to discover and map the region’s rock art sites. SALT LAKE TRIBUNE

More Than 50 Yellowstone Bison Headed for Fort Peck Tribes Escape. Biologists had held the group of bison in captivity for almost two years to ensure they were free of brucellosis. The National Park Service launched a criminal investigation this week after discovering evidence that bolt cutters were used to free the bison. BILLINGS GAZETTE

Tribal Members, Conservationists Collect Lichen Trying to Rescue Last Caribou Herd in the contiguous United States. A coalition of environmentalists created an 18-acre maternity pen in British Columbia last year to protect birthing caribous from predators. Now they are collecting hundreds of pounds of lichen to sustain the population. OREGON PUBLIC BROADCASTING

Rodenticide on California Marijuana Farms Poisons Endangered Owl Species, a new study indicates. Northern spotted owls primarily eat rats, exposing them to the dangerous poison. Despite efforts from government regulators and environmentalists to phase out the products, rodenticides are widely available in stores. Scientists worry legalization of recreational marijuana will lead to more rat poison in the ecosystem. SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

Jan. 11, 2018

Port Developer Launches Federal Lawsuit Against Oakland Coal Ban, saying he has the right to process any legal commodity without interference. The Oakland city council banned coal handling in 2016 after discovering Bowie Resource Partners, Utah’s largest coal producer, was funding the city’s new shipping terminal. Bowie Resource Partners hopes to use Oakland’s port as a gateway to energy markets in Asia, while city government officials in Oakland worry about public health effects. Arguments will begin January 16th. Salt Lake Tribune

Subsidies for Rainwater Harvesting Systems in Tucson Decrease Demand for potable water, a new study shows. Five years ago, Tucson’s public water utility began offering rebates to residents who installed systems to divert water onto landscaping or store it in cisterns. New research shows the subsidies have already changed water usage habits, decreasing demand for water during every month of the year. News Deeply

Bering Sea Elders Group Express Outrage at New Lease for Offshore Drilling in the Arctic. President Trump lifted restrictions on offshore drilling last week, causing a group of Alaskan tribal leaders to worry that increased ship traffic will impede their ability to conduct traditional hunts for walruses and other marine mammals. Alaska Public Media

Proposed Dam in Wyoming Would Generate 73 Million in Public Benefits, developers say. Lawmakers will meet Friday in Cheyenne to discuss funding for the West Fork Reservoir to be carved out of Carbon County’s Little Snake River. A new report from the Water Development Commission suggests the dam could provide 26.5 million in new economic activity, 26.8 million from instream flow, and 5.4 million in construction, and 9 million in new recreational activities. Many locals are skeptical. WYOFILE

Colorado Snowpack Levels Drop to 30-Year Low as officials brace for a potential drought. In Southwestern Colorado, the snowpack is at 22 percent of the normal level. Even with more than half the snowpack accumulation season remaining, it is unlikely that new snowfalls will make up the deficit before spring. Water suppliers are debating how to maximize reservoir storage while planning for heavy flows. Denver Post

Dec. 28, 2017

Utah’s San Juan County, Site of the Fierce Protests Against the Bears Ears Monument, has a new concern: a federal judge has upheld an expert’s creation of new voting districts giving more weight to the votes of Navajos. The Navajos sued the county in 2012, saying the existing districts for the three-person county commission and the five-member school board were racially biased. They claimed that nearly all the Navajo population was stacked into one county commission district, while whites held a comfortable majority in the other two districts. In 2016, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby agreed the districts were unconstitutional. When the county and Navajos could not agree on new ones, an outside expert was called in to redraw the lines. Last week, Judge Shelby upheld the expert’s boundaries. KSJD

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New California Communities Seek to Hold Fossil Fuel Companies Responsible for climate change. Santa Cruz County and Santa Cruz City filed lawsuits against 29 fossil fuel companies in Superior Court on Dec. 20. In July, Marin County, San Mateo County, and the city of Imperial Beach sued 37 fossil fuel companies, seeking damages from the industry for its role in sea level rise. The cities of San Francisco and Oakland then filed their own suits in September against five major oil companies. The new suits focus not just on sea level rise but also seek restitution for damages to the hydrologic cycle and its resulting increase in severe weather, drought and wildfires. Yale Environment 360 Climate Liability News

Wyoming Leases to Oil and Gas Firms Rise 800 Percent in 2017. Even though Wyoming has had its boom years, this year’s lease sales stand out, officials say. During the downturn of 2016, revenue from the Bureau of Land Management lease sales and the Office of State Lands auctions combined added up to about $16 million. This year, Wyoming netted a combined $146 million, leasing about a half million acres of federal and state land. The reasons are still unclear; it could be the Trump Administration’s embrace of fossil fuels, or a new Wyoming online leasing system, or both. Casper Star-Tribune