Today is National Eclipse Day, and thanks to the Milli, Nena Spring, and Whitewater fires, I’m likely to be viewing it through a lens of smoke. So this has me thinking about wildfires and wondering if it is true, as some claim, that environmentalists are ultimately responsible for the increase in acres burned in the last decade or so.
Partly due to pressure from environmentalists, federal land timber sales declined by about 80 percent in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the ten-year rolling average of the number of acres burned grew from about 3 million acres in the 1980s and 1990s to 6.5 million acres in the 2000s and (so far) 2010s. Is this a coincidence or did the cessation in timber cutting lead to the growth in wildfires?
Those who blame environmentalists argue that timber cutting and related activities allowed forest managers to minimize fuel loads in the forests. When those activities stopped, the fuel loads grew and fires became hotter, larger, and harder to control. Continue reading
The internet and phone service were both down in Camp Sherman yesterday afternoon and evening, which is when I would normally write the next day’s Antiplanner. So instead I took some night photos of the Milli Fire, which was burning on about
256 3,500 acres a few miles from here.
Click image for a larger view.
Next Monday, Camp Sherman will enjoy 90 seconds of total eclipse. Local residents are torn between hoping for clear skies and hoping that smoke from the fires obscures the view so the millions of eclipse-watching tourists go somewhere else.
A lengthy report in the Seattle Times reveals just how out of control the Forest Service’s fire program has become. Rather than a subprogram aimed at protecting the national forests and adjacent lands from fire damage, fire has become the agency’s main driver and raison d’être.
According to the Times, to control a fire in the Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, the agency cut hundreds of acres of old-growth trees to form a ten-mile long fire line. As it turned out, the fire was put out by rain long before it reached the fire line, but the agency continued to cut the fire line even after it began to rain. Fisheries biologists and other resource specialists within the agency protested the cutting to no avail.
“One of the problems with fire fighting is a mentality completely takes hold that pretty much you are going to double down on things just simply because you want to protect your rear,” forest ecologist Jerry Franklin told the Times. “It is very characteristic, they just freak out. Basically in a sense it’s war. And you don’t worry a whole lot about side effects. It is what’s called collateral damage.”
Congress rejected the Forest Service plan to give the agency access to up to $2.9 billion a year to suppress wildfires. In response, Secretary of Agriculture threatened to let fires burn up the West unless Congress gives his department more money. In a letter to key members of Congress, Vilsack warned, “I will not authorize transfers from restoration and resilience funding” to suppress fires. If the Forest Service runs out of appropriated funds to fight fires, it will stop fighting them until Congress appropriates additional funds.
This is a stunning example of brinksmanship on the part of an agency once known for its easygoing nature. Since about 1990, Congress has given the Forest Service the average of its previous ten years of fire suppression funds. If the agency has to spend more than that amount during a severe fire year, Congress authorized it to borrow funds from its other programs, with the promise that Congress would reimburse those funds later. In other words, during severe fire years, some projects might be delayed for a year–hardly a crisis.
Yet Vilsack and the Forest Service are intent on turning it into a crisis. In a report prominently posted on the Forest Service’s web site, the agency whines about “the rising costs of wildfire operations”–that cost not being the dollar cost but the “effects on the Forest Service’s non-fire work.”
A bill before Congress would practically give the Forest Service a blank check for firefighting. HR 167, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, proposes to allow the Forest Service to tap into federal disaster relief funds whenever its annual firefighting appropriation runs out of money. It’s not quite a blank check as the bill would limit the Forest Service to $2.9 billion in firefighting expenses per year, but that’s not much of a limit (yet), as the most it has ever spent (so far) was in 2006 when it spent $1.501 billion.
The Forest Service puts out fires by dumping money on them.
Having a blank check is nothing new for the Forest Service. In 1908, Congress literally gave the agency a blank check for fire suppression, promising to refund all fire suppression costs at the end of each year. As far as I know, this is the only time in history that a democratically elected legislature gave a bureaucracy a blank check to do anything: even in wartime, the Defense Department had to live within a budget.
It’s fire season again, which means we are once again treated to stories about how the Forest Service is running out of money and about how it all must be due to climate change. Both of these claims overlook fundamental points about fire policy and firefighting.
As of August 16, the BLM had spent $2.2 million controlling the 88,000-acre Cornet Fire on the Vale District in Oregon. The Forest Service had spent two-and-one-half times that much on a fire that was just 515 acres in size. BLM photo.
The Forest Service frets that rapidly rising firefighting costs are hurting the budgets of other Forest Service programs. However, as the Antiplanner has pointed out before, Forest Service firefighting costs have risen rapidly mainly because they can: the agency has a virtual blank check to spend on fire. As a result, the agency spends far more fighting fires than Department of the Interior agencies, which have never had a blank check.
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.
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.
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.
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.