Category Archives: Wildfire

Blank Check, Here We Come!

Now that forest fires are in the news, someone noticed that President Obama has proposed a new way of funding wild firefighting. Instead of borrowing from its fuels treatment funds when the Forest Service exhausts its regular fire-fighting budget, Obama wants to let the agency draw upon a new “special disaster account” that is “adjusted each year to reflect the 10-year average cost of responding to such events.”

That makes so much sense, because treating excessive firefighting costs by giving the Forest Service more money is exactly like suppressing forest fires by throwing gasoline on them. In case you don’t hear the sarcasm, it makes no sense at all.

Obama is focusing on the wrong problem, the drawdown of funds intended for fuel treatments. The real problem is the incentives the Forest Service has to spend wildly on firefighting.

Continue reading

Share

The Future of Wildfire

The 2013 fire season is nearly over, and while it is too soon for a complete post-mortem, we know a few things about this year’s fires. As of September 10, about 36,275 fires to date have burned just under 4 million acres (report is updated each day), which is well under the last decade’s average of more than 57,000 fires and 6.4 million acres per year.


Dumping money on the fire.

A couple of weeks ago, the Forest Service said it had spent about $1 billion on fire suppression so far, and that it had to “borrow” $600 million from timber and other funds to keep up the hard work of pretending to put out fires. The Department of the Interior tends to spend about a quarter to a third as much as the Forest Service each year, so total federal spending this year probably came somewhere close to $1.5 billion.

Continue reading

Share

FIre Spending Tops $1 Billion

The wildfire season still has a month or so to go and the Forest Service says that it is running out of money for fire suppression. Having already spent about a billion dollars, it is “diverting $600 million from timber, recreation and other areas to fill the gap.”

So far, about 3.4 million acres have burned, which isn’t a lot by recent standards. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, more than 8 million acres burned in every year from 2004 through 2007, as well as 2011 and 2012. Yet the Forest Service spent less than $1 billion on fire suppression in 2005 and just over a billion in 2004.

Continue reading

Share

Green Ridge Fire Follow-Up

The Forest Service says that it has pretty much contained the Green Ridge Fire. When the Antiplanner reported on the fire last Tuesday (August 6), it had burned 550 acres, and officials said they expected to have it contained by the end of August 7. In fact, it took at least four more days and a total cost of close to $5 million.


This map shows the status of the fire on Wednesday, August 7. Notice that the Forest Service was building a fire line (black line) well south of the actual fire front (red line). Click image for a larger view.

On the night of August 8, a strong wind whipped up the fire and sent fire brands that created spot fires as much as a mile away from the main fire, increasing the area burned to 950 acres. But on the evening of Friday, August 9, firefighters were helped by a rain storm that didn’t last long but was quite heavy. Rain fell again the afternoon of August 10. Despite the rain and Forest Service assurances that “lower temperatures and higher relative humidities are helping firefighting efforts,” the number of acres burned climbed to 1,150 by Saturday morning.

Continue reading

Share

Air Show

It’s hot and dry in Central Oregon, and a lightning storm on July 31 lit at least 48 fires in or around the Deschutes National Forest. Forest Service firefighters quickly suppressed all but one of them; unfortunately, a 58-year-old firefighter named John Hammack was killed when a tree fell on him.


Fires burning on Green Ridge Sunday night, August 4. Click image for a larger view.

The one fire still burning is about seven miles from the Antiplanner’s home and within view of my back deck. So we’ve been treated to a parade of helicopters and air tankers of various kinds attempting to control the fire. The Forest Service reports that it is spending about $200,000 a day, but the fire grew 90 acres Sunday and 175 acres Monday.

Continue reading

Share

Congress Still Perplexed by Wildfire

“U.S. runs out of funds to battle wildfires,” misstates a Washington Post headline. “In the worst wildfire season on record, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service ran out of money to pay for firefighters, fire trucks and aircraft that dump retardant on monstrous flames,” continues the article, making two more errors.

Smoke from the Pole Creek Fire billows above Black Butte Ranch, near Sisters, Oregon, on September 9, 2012.

First, 2012 is hardly the worst wildfire season on record. We only have to go back to 2006 to find a year that had burned more acres, as of October 5, than 2012. Before 2006, several years in the 1930s and 1950s vastly exceeded 2012′s number: an average of nearly 40 millions acres a year burned in the 1930s.

Second, no one, least of all the U.S., has “run out of funds.” Instead, the Forest Service spent its budgeted amount on fire. This has happened many times in the past, and when it happens, the Forest Service continues spending money on fire by borrowing it from other line items, then expecting Congress to reimburse the borrowed funds. Admittedly, this is, more or less, what the article goes on to say.

What the article doesn’t say is that this tradition has grown out of a long history of the Forest Service spending too much on fire suppression. That history began in 1908, when Congress gave the Forest Service a blank check to suppress wildfires. Under this law, the Forest Service could spend as much as it needed on fires with full confidence that Congress would reimburse the funds at the end of each fire season. As far as I know, no other legislature in history has ever given any agency a blank check.

Continue reading

Share

Fire Season, Again

It’s summer, so there are wildfires. There are wildfires, so people are debating what to do about them. Should the Forest Service cut more trees? Should counties regulate rural land development? Should Congress give the Forest Service and Department of the Interior more money for fire suppression?

The New York Times asked seven experts to address these issues in 400 words or less. Some focus on regulation; others on public land management; still others on fire suppression and fuel treatments.

Naturally, the Antiplanner opposes regulation of private landowners, saying that the risks they take are between them and their insurance companies. Beyond that, I suggest that the real problem is that the federal agencies have too much money, leading people to become overly reliant on suppression efforts and uninterested in taking the steps they need to protect their properties.

Share

Life in the WUI, 2011

Unlike much of the rest of the country, the Northwest has had a mild summer. But at the end of August we finally had a few thunderstorms, and they naturally lit some wildfires. So we are getting another lesson in modern wild land fire suppression.

Mary Bernsen photo of backfires started by a helicopter. Click any photo for a larger view.

The Shadow Lake Fire is far from the biggest fire in our area–that distinction probably belongs to the High Cascades Fire, though that is really several fires so it is hard to tell. But the Shadow Lake Fire is right next to a major highway where the Antiplanner often cycles. It also seems to be sending more smoke our way than any other fire.

Continue reading

Share

Are Supertankers Worthwhile or Just PR?

Due to budget cuts, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection–CalFire for short–is canceling its contract for exclusive use of two DC-10 supertankers. These supertankers are “perhaps [the] most effective tool” the agency has for fighting fires, says the news story.

That’s not just an exaggeration, it is probably completely wrong. When the Antiplanner was in forestry school, some four decades ago, the fire management professors were openly scornful of aerial firefighting. “The agencies use aerial tankers only because the press demands it,” they said. “They need the video to show on TV.”

Continue reading

Share

New Fire Plan: Burn More Money

In the late 1990s, the Forest Service spent about $300 million a year on fire and the Department of the Interior spent another $100 million a year. Then came the 2000 Cerro Grande fire, which burned a billion dollars worth of homes in Los Alamos, NM. After that, Congress opened up the checkbook and told the agencies to spend whatever it takes to keep such a fire from happening again.

The agencies have taken full advantage of this. In 2010, the Forest Service budget for fire was $2.1 billion and USDI’s was more than $850 million. That’s just the budget; the agencies had another $500 million or so to draw upon if they ran over their budgets; if they didn’t go over their budgets, they got to keep the surplus for future years.

Here’s an indication of how expensive fire has become: In 2010, for the first time in at least 60 years, if not the entire 105-history of the Forest Service, the agency spent more money on fire than on all other national forest operations, construction, and maintenance combined.

Continue reading

Share