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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
 

Update, May 16, 2019


The fiscal reckoning that the U.S. Forest Service feared is approaching. Its reserve accounts covering firefighting costs are nearly drained. If the 2019 fire season is as intense as those of the past two years, and these accounts — which are dedicated to forest maintenance but used for firefighting in a pinch — are not replenished, the agency will be scrambling to pay firefighting costs. That was the message the Forest Service’s chief, Vicki Christiansen, told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee. “I’ve pushed our folks in the field and said you’ve got to plan like you have it,” Ms. Christiansen said. “I said the money’s coming, and the money isn’t there.”

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, Madison Pobis, and Sierra Garcia

Articles Worth Reading: December 2, 2019

A Downward Trend for California’s Colorado River Water Consumption is shown by the most recent datasets. A favorable snowpack melt in the Sierras reduced the stress on Southern California water needs from the Colorado River. “Simply put, we are consistently using less water,” in spite of population growth, says Eric Kuhn, a retired general manager for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. John Fleck/Inkstain

Idaho Fisheries Managers Predict Long-term Success for Sockeye Salmon despite a small percentage of recruits making it back to Snake River. Unusually high water temperatures and harsh transitions from soft to hard water led to low success in the past few years. New adjustments to the program and favorable conditions could mean much higher returns of salmon to the Sawtooth Basin in 2020 and 2021. Associated Press/Idaho Falls Post Register

The First Recording of a Blue Whale Heartbeat Suggests an Upper Limit for Animal Size. Researchers at Stanford University recovered the data from a monitor that the team attached to a blue whale with suction cups while it was surfacing between dives near Monterey, California. During dives up to 200 meters, the 220-ton whale’s heart rate can slow to as few as two beats per minute in order to conserve oxygen. Even after surfacing, their hearts likely can’t beat faster than 37 beats per minute, and this ability to bounce between such extremes is what helps such a massive animal dive so deep for food. If a deep-diving animal were any bigger, it’s likely the heart couldn’t beat fast enough to compensate for the oxygen lost during dives. The Atlantic

Lighthouse Relocation Stirs Up Tensions in a Coastal California Town. Eroding cliffs surrounding the original landmark prompted the community to move the local Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse. Some locals want to preserve the names of those buried or lost at sea, but native tribes are worried that a new location would disturb ancestral burial grounds and reinforce painful histories. Los Angeles Times

A Man Unearths His Ancestral History of the Crow Tribe in Yellowstone Valley by inviting tribal members to share stories and spending time in Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains. An archaeological excavation revealed the original foundations of a fort that had remained intact for more than 130 years. A new school curriculum centered on the fort and the history of the land has sparked new energy to honor the Apsalooke people and their traditions. Mountain Journal

Articles Worth Reading: November 18, 2019

Mining Expansion Poses Risks for a Colorado Tourist Destination. The town of Glenwood Springs relies on water flows from the Colorado River and subterranean heating to supply its popular hot springs. Denver-based mining company Rocky Mountain Resources acquired a nearby limestone quarry in 2016. Now the firm has proposed plans to expand from 20 acres to more than 450 over the next few decades. Several surrounding towns, including Glenwood Springs — a bedroom community for ski resorts — have passed resolutions opposing the expansion, citing impacts of dust, traffic, and impacts on water (read our recent report from Garfield County, Colorado). The Bureau of Land Management has not yet decided whether or not to allow it. The Denver Post

Caribou Take Home the Gold for Long-Distance Migrations. A recent study confirmed the widely cited evidence that caribou are the mammals that routinely make the longest migrations over land. Over the course of a year, caribou will travel as much as 840 miles. The New York Times

Bird Rehabilitators Seek to Ban Lead Ammunition after seeing the devastating impacts of lead toxicity in raptors like Wyoming’s golden eagles. Lead bullets shatter easily upon impact, which means that birds feeding on prey that have been shot can ingest the toxic substance and suffer severe impacts to the brain and nervous system. Many hunters are resistant to the transition because lead-free ammunition tends to be more expensive and less-suited to certain styles of hunting. WyoFile

Dry Lakes are Kicking Up Dust Throughout the West and prompting air quality officials to consider legal action. The Salton Sea in California’s Imperial County and the Utah Great Salt Lake are two of the largest contributors to dust in the wake of increasingly dry conditions. Dust in the air clogs lungs and airways and carries with it toxic compounds from agricultural sources. Bitterroot

Mountains Could Act as Batteries for Storing Gravitational Potential Energy according to new research. As western states work to meet their renewable energy goals, lithium-ion batteries often fall short when it comes to storing energy from solar or wind for more than a few hours. But by using a contraption similar to a ski lift to hoist sand up mountainsides, gravitational potential energy is stored and ready to generate electricity once the material falls down again. The system would increase the time and scale of energy storage while avoiding the drawbacks of hydropower storage, like evaporation. Utility Dive

Articles Worth Reading: November 5, 2019

Devastating Sea Urchin Invasion is Spreading to the Oregon Coast and wreaking havoc on abalone fisheries. Rapacious purple urchins have decimated California’s kelp ecosystems in recent years, and new estimates suggest that as many as 350 million of the spiny critters were latching onto a single Oregon reef — a 10,000 percent increase over the 2014 numbers. “You can't just go out and smash them. There's too many,” says Scott Groth, a shellfish scientist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Conservationists and other stakeholders are hoping to combat the issue by paying divers to remove the urchins by hand so they can be farmed for their meaty roe. Associated Press

Lasers, LiDAR, and Drones Can Detect Methane Leaks that contribute to global warming and cost the oil and gas industry as much as $30 billion per year. Tech entrepreneurs in Colorado are working to design monitoring systems that are rugged enough to be left unattended in the oil fields forlong periods but accurate enough to identify even small leaks. Yale Environment 360

The Wild Population of California Condors is Well on its Way to Recovery. There are now more than 300 condors throughout the Southwest thanks to an aggressive breeding program and a ban on lead ammunition put into effect in July. Scientists are finding that an abundance of marine mammals contributes to healthier chicks. Soon the population will reach the goals originally set for the species in the 1996 plans Hakai

New Law Requires Texas Homeowners to Disclose Flooding Risk to potential buyers in the wake of damage from Hurricane Harvey. The new law means that buyers are more informed about flood history and risk, but properties in floodplain areas may have more difficulty selling. Surveys suggest that more than 74 percent of Americans are in favor of a disclosure law that can help buyers decide whether or not to purchase a home or seek flood insurance. NPR

Navajo Woman Reflects on the Importance of her Grandmother’s Weaving. Melanie Yazzie remembers holding yarn between her feet as her grandmother wove traditional rugs in their home in Arizona. Now a printmaker and educator, she draws from her memories of her grandmother to find purpose in her work. The piece begins at the podcast’s 11:41 mark. The Moth Podcast

Articles Worth Reading: October 22, 2019

Greater-Sage Grouse Populations Stand a Better Chance, thanks to a new court ruling that found a lack of acceptable scientific support for the Trump administration’s rollback of protections on more than 9 million acres of the bird’s habitat in states like Wyoming and Oregon. The rollback in March was an effort to lease prime land for oil and gas drilling projects. This week’s court ruling, in which the judge wrote, “When the [Bureau of Land Management] substantially reduces protections for sage grouse contrary to the best science and the concerns of other agencies, there must be some analysis and justification,” is a win for conservation groups suing to get the plans thrown out. The sage grouse has already lost some 90 percent of its historic numbers. Audubon

Colorado Cannabis Growers Are Becoming More Energy-Efficient by taking advantage of sustainable investments in technology. Carbon emissions are rising with the expansion of the legal marijuana industry because indoor growing operations rely on huge amounts of electricity to power cooling and lighting equipment. Creative design systems and a rigorous energy offset program are helping to keep the state on track for its efficiency goals in the next few years. The Denver Post

Shellfish Farming Permit Thrown Out Due to Concerns for the Marine Environment in the Pacific Northwest. A federal judge found the Army Corps of Engineers didn’t properly analyze the environmental impact of aquaculture farms. The industry takes in nearly $150 million per year in Washington state, the hub of shellfish aquaculture. Critics said the original permit doesn’t account for potential damage from microplastics, herbicides, and tideland conversion. The Seattle Times

Ecologists Lobby for Wildlife-Friendly Highway Crossings Along the Border With Mexico. Mexico’s Highway 2 intersects a wildlife corridor that could be used by populations of endangered species like jaguars, ocelots, and black bears traveling between Arizona and Sonora. Wildlands Network is pushing for additions to highway construction that would direct animals to safe crossings and maximize their chances of survival during dangerous travel. ASU Cronkite News/Arizona PBS

Wild Burros Aren’t All Bad for the Death Valley Ecosystem according to ongoing research. Yes, the donkeys compete for resources with the park’s native species, but they may also serve other beneficial purposes. By digging wells in dry streambeds, they create small water sources for insects and amphibians and help struggling tree species germinate. The default option is to round up and remove the burros, but there may be unintended consequences for the complex desert ecosystem. Undark

Articles Worth Reading: October 7, 2019

California Fisherman Are Repeatedly Catching and Releasing Protected Great White Sharks Without Consequences due to cloudy language in the law. Although state regulations strictly prohibit killing a Great White, it’s almost impossible to prosecute because anglers can claim the catches were accidental. Changing ocean conditions mean that more of the animals are sticking around in Southern California, spurring advocates to call for heftier penalties for illegal takes. Hakai Magazine

More Than 80,000 Wild Horses Ended up in Foreign Slaughterhouses Last Year even though killing horses for food is illegal in in the U.S. “Kill buyers” say that exporting to Canada and Mexico decreases the exploding population and helps feed the world, but animal rights activists say that the Bureau of Land Management can do more to protect adoptable horses. The New Food Economy

The Western Rivers Conservancy Conserves Vital River Habitat by Purchasing Land and partnering with local managers. The recent acquisition of old-growth forest surrounding the Blue Creek watershed marks a 10-year effort to preserve critical salmon streams. The organization has purchased and conserved an estimated 175,000 acres of riparian habitat since its founding three decades ago. The acquisitions are handed over to stewards who are expected to implement long-term conservation management plans and make the lands more accessible to the public. Modern Conservationist

The Right of Personhood for the Klamath River Means It Can Bring Cases in Tribal Court, opening up avenues for legal advocacy and shifting the conversation around indigenous knowledge. The move follows a precedent set by New Zealand tribes and an international indigenous movement called Rights of Nature. Although no case has yet been brought to court, the Yurok Tribe’s resolution means that issues like pollution, diseased fish, and even climate change can now be addressed through tribal court. High Country News

A Small Alaska Town Is Slowly Being Consumed by Rusting Cars along with refrigerators, forks, shoes, and everything else imported by plane and boat. With limited options for removing waste once it arrives, Bethel’s citizens instead create graveyards of junk and spare parts. Native Yup’ik Elder Esther Green says that the abandoned cars are more than an eyesore — they’re a disturbance to their native land. “Everything around us has ears, and they can see and they can feel. Just like us human beings.” 99 Percent Invisible Podcast

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

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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