Category Archives: Wildfire

Fire Out of Control

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.”

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Vilsack to Congress: Give Me More Money or I’ll Let the West Burn

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.”

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Restoring the Blank Check

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.

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Fire Budgets and Climate

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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