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.

Before World War II, Forest Service officials were responsible enough to actually consider it a badge of honor when they didn’t have to draw on this blank check. Between 1908 and 1940, they used it only a handful of times. After the war, however, agency officials were seduced by the notion that the use of aircraft would simplify firefighting, when it actually made it much more expensive (and deadly as lots of pilots and crews lost their lives in aerial accidents). At the same time, many local officials realized they could use the blank check to fill other needs, such as buying new motor vehicles or office equipment. As a result, drawing on the blank check became routine, even in mild fire years. As one firefighter told me in 1979, “the Forest Service fights fires by dumping money on them.”

Smoke from the Pole Creek Fire floats over Black Butte, near Sisters, Oregon, on September 12, 2012. Dead trees in the foreground are from the GW fire, which burned in 2007.

In 1980, concerned about the rising costs of fire suppression in a decade with relatively few fires, Congress repealed the blank check law. Since then, it has floundered around trying to figure out how to deal with fire. On one hand, it realizes that giving the Forest Service all the money it says it needs creates the wrong incentives. On the other hand, no member of Congress can stand idly by or say, “Burn, baby burn!” when a fire is threatening homes in his or her state or district.

Under the system adopted in 1980, Congress gave the Forest Service a fixed budget for fire each year and told it to save the surplus in mild years for the bad years. This worked, with the Forest Service making a concerted effort to reduce firefighting costs, until 1988, an especially severe year, when the Forest Service spent all that year’s appropriation and all past surpluses. The agency then borrowed money from its reforestation fund to pay for suppression. Congress resisted for several years, but eventually it reimbursed the reforestation fund, thus putting the Forest Service back in a blank-check mode of operation.

In 2009, Congress tried again, creating the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement or FLAME fund. Once again, it appropriated a fixed amount of dollars each year and told the Forest Service to keep the surpluses in mild years to fight fires in bad years. Unfortunately, after two years when the Forest Service had a large surplus, Congress took back $200 million of that surplus in 2011. As if to teach Congress a lesson, the Forest Service spent all of its budget and whatever remained of the surplus this year, forcing Congress to give the Forest Service a supplemental appropriation of $400 million.

The U.S. Department of Interior (representing the BLM, Park Service, and Fish & Wildlife Service) shared in that $400 million, but it hasn’t had the historic “blank check” problems that the Forest Service has had, mainly because Congress never gave it a blank check. As a result, BLM and Park Service fire crews tend to be much more cautious about spending money to put out fires.

Today, the Forest Service supports its profligate spending with the myth that decades of fire suppression have led to huge fuel loads in the forests that make them ripe for monstrous fires. This has also persuaded Congress to fund about 3 million acres of “fuel treatments” a year–thinnings, prescribed burnings, etc.

In fact, this is all bull: as table 6 of this report from a Forest Service research station shows, only about a third of forest lands are susceptible to a build-up of fuels in the event of fire suppression (the report calls these forests “historical fire regime I”), and only 18 percent of these forests (meaning 6 percent of the total) are in “condition class 3,” meaning they have been seriously altered by decades of management (or mismanagement). For Forest Service lands only, table 7 says about 28.8 million acres–less than 15 percent of the agency’s land base–fall in these categories, while table 8 says less than 6.5 million acres, or 3 percent, of USDI lands are in these categories.

Table 10 of the same report says that less than half a million acres of federal land are in a “high risk class” for fire. Unfortunately, table 10 is mislabeled and doesn’t indicate that it only counts acres in the “wildland-urban interface.” What this means, however, is that the federal government doesn’t even need to treat most of its 35 million acres (28.8 million Forest Service and 6.5 million USDI) that are in historical fire regime I and condition class 3.

Even on that half million acres, fuel treatments may not be optimal. Research by Forest Service scientist Jack Cohen shows that all that is needed to protect homes and other structures is to treat the land within 130 feet of the structures (plus insure that the structures themselves are relatively non-flammable, meaning no wooden roofs).

Of course, as long as millions of dollars a year are available for fuel treatments, the Forest Service doesn’t bother with this sort of careful discrimination. Instead, funds are distributed to forests throughout the nation, whether they need it or not, so all managers will have the opportunity to spend some of it.

If fuels aren’t really the problem, why are we having such big fires? One reason is the weather: fires have always been bigger during drought years (and for those ready to point to climate change, there were worse droughts and worse fire years in the 1930s than any year since). A second reason is a change in Forest Service firefighting tactics aimed at saving firefighters’ lives: instead of putting firefighters up against the fires to control them, it now keeps the firefighters well back of the wildfires and has them set backfires to burn out the fuels before the wildfires can reach them. Of course, the backfires are counted in total acres burned by wildfire even though they were lit by the firefighters.

Few members of Congress understand these issues. But the real problem is that Congress doesn’t understand how to deal with natural resources in general–or maybe it does but it wants to be the knight in shining armor, providing unlimited funds to protect local voters from the evils found on the public lands. Ultimately, there is no reason why public lands should not be able to pay for their fire programs just as private landowners do. But that means overhauling not just fire but the entire concept of public land management.

At minimum, this means public land managers should be allowed to charge fair market value for all resources on their land and should fund all of their activities solely out of those receipts. Ideally, a formula would be set to insure that some receipts are left over, i.e. profits, to reimburse the Treasury or some other beneficiaries. Otherwise, Congress should place minimal restraints on public land management, instead letting the market work.

What would this mean for fire? Some forests might benefit from thinnings, prescribed burnings, or other treatments. This would be limited to those forests in “historical fire regime I,” and it probably wouldn’t even pay to treat all of those forests. Other forests would be worth relatively rigorous fire suppression efforts, and these should be funded out of a combination of retained receipts and insurance. In other forests, simply letting fires burn might be the most optimal solution.

Until such wholesale reforms are made, the Forest Service will always be on the verge of “running out funds” because it will always know that Congress will reimburse it. Only when it is absolutely clear that managers are on their own will they have incentives to find the truly optimal solution for managing their forests for fire and other issues.

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14 thoughts on “Congress Still Perplexed by Wildfire

  1. Dan

    Recently I was in Bull of the Woods W.A., & we were perplexed by the fire behavior of last year’s fire until we learned they sent people in there to fight it. No reason to do that except for ego.

    Nevertheless, I suspect the headlines are referring to the number of structures burned. In Colo the fires were especially destructive to homes. I suspect within a decade things will change and fire insurance premiums will go through the roof. I doubt this will make people move, but it may make them take action to create defensible space, which will fragment habitat even more and eliminate the reason for having the second home for some.

    That is: no easy answers. We are too far into this phenomenon.

    DS

  2. Frank

    …the myth that decades of fire suppression have led to huge fuel loads in the forests that make them ripe for monstrous fires. …this report from a Forest Service research station shows, only about a third of forest lands are susceptible to a build-up of fuels in the event of fire suppression…

    Randal, I know that forestry is your area of expertise, but as a former wildland firefighter and semi-professional fire ecologist, I have to strongly disagree with you here.

    Where you go wrong is your statement about forests; Table 6 covers historical fire regimes by condition classes of all cover types except agriculture, barren, water, and urban/development/agriculture. You erroneously label them “forest lands”. Fire Regime II is primarly grass/shrublands while Fire Regimes III and IV are made of BOTH forest and shrublands. Only about one-third of the total is forested (Fire Regime I). Grass/shrubland, including sagebrush steppe (Fire Regime II) is 27% of the total.

    The study shows that 41% “of the area in Fire Regime I is within its historical range, while 59 percent is altered from the historical range”, meaning nearly two-thirds of forests have increased fuel loads. Nearly two-thirds of Fire Regime II, grass/scrubland, is in its historical range.

    The report even states that “Fire exclusion, housing and agricultural development, livestock grazing, logging, and invasion of exotic species [cheatgrass in grass/shrubland regime] are primary causes of departures.”

    Furthermore, “Fire Regimes I and II are often at the greatest cumulative risk…as a result of the combination of ecosystem departure and risk of catastrophic wildland fire. And “Fire exclusion, establishment of exotic species, livestock grazing, and logging are primary causes of departure for Fire Regimes III and IV.”

    Even more: “Of particular concern is the high proportion of USFS lands altered from the historical range in Fire Regimes I, II, III, and IV; these fire-adapted ecosystems are perhaps the most adversely affected by fire exclusion, which causes excessive fuel loadings and ecosystem health problems.”

    Please correct me if I’ve misinterpreted you or if I have somehow erred.

    The evidence that fire exclusion has led to increased fuel load and increased severity and intensity of fires in most forests is overwhelming. That is, unless there is new evidence to overturn decades of scientific fire ecology research, in which case, I’d like to see that new evidence; this report isn’t it.

    The implications to policy are clear: Fuel reduction treatment of Fire Regime I should accelerate in order to prevent catastrophic wildfire. Once these forests have been returned to a more natural state, in areas away from human development, natural fire should be allowed to do its thing.

    Dan Reply:

    The evidence that fire exclusion has led to increased fuel load and increased severity and intensity of fires in most forests is overwhelming. That is, unless there is new evidence to overturn decades of scientific fire ecology research, in which case, I’d like to see that new evidence; this report isn’t it.

    The implications to policy are clear: Fuel reduction treatment of Fire Regime I should accelerate in order to prevent catastrophic wildfire. Once these forests have been returned to a more natural state, in areas away from human development, natural fire should be allowed to do its thing.

    I generally agree here – two things:

    IMHO it is important to be clear about the Fire Return Intervals in forests. Plenty of forests have been altered due to our mismanagement. Not all. Man-exacerbated drought is a factor in some others.

    Second, logging small-diameter stems costs money, and there are few markets for the wood. The Western Slope of Colo was going to get a cellulosic ethanol plant to take some of this lodgepole around here, but the drilling picked up and now the gas prices are so low that the plant is no longer economical. So there is little need for all this wood – sure, you see a cabinet or chair every once in a while, but there are several million ha of dead trees to get rid of. Take that into the second-growth Doug-fir forests and the pondo that haven’t burned, and combine that with Canada’s cutting of their beetle kill and the closure of so many mills and there simply is no capacity in the forest products market.

    Fix the second and we may get somewhere. Not sure how to fix the first without mass education of the public…

    DS

    Frank Reply:

    Again, more earthquakes as we agree.

    Yes, most (59%), but not all forests have been affected. And fire return interval is very important, especially for higher-elevation forests of Red Firs, Whitebark Pine, etc. I also question the human effects on forests where the FRI is quite long and usually stand-replacing (such as lodgepole). At most, humans may have slightly increased (in the grand scheme of things) the FRI in such areas.

    Indeed, there is no market for small-diameter trees, and cutting them for wood products fails cost/benefit analysis (especially in terms of added infrastructure, namely roads, which results in a degraded environment). These areas can be mechanically thinned prior to burning if needed. According to my ex-FMO, who is now very high up in the Denver office, this is just an excuse to get to profitable old-growth. I agree.

    RE: mass education of the public. That was my job for a decade, but the audience was select and open-minded. Smokey Bear’s propaganda often proves difficult to counter among the general public. Perhaps a mass ad campaign where Smokey comes clean on his half-truths and blatant lies?

    Better still IMO would be to transfer USFS land to localized non-profit conservation trusts that manage the land with long-term goals in mind rather than short-term gain for logging corporations that pay pennies on the dollar to export timber abroad. I’m going out on a limb here, but I’m going to guess the vast majority of Congressional reps don’t know $h!t about fire ecology and environmental history and are therefore extremely unqualified to manage fire activity in the west from the shores of the Potomac. Individual members of Congress also financially benefit from their whackadoo policies, whether it’s “federal grazing permits for livestock that feeds on publicly held lands” or their cozy relationships with Helicopter Assn. International. And even without the financial benefits, they benefit politically by providing expensive and ineffective airtankers and helicopters to fight wildfires.

  3. Frank

    BTW, love the pics. I served as a lookout on both Green Ridge and Black Butte. The Metolius Basin and the central Oregon Cascades is one of the most scenic areas of Oregon, far surpassing IMO, the scenic qualities of several national parks. If I had the money, I’d buy property there and drop out of the rat race.

  4. Sandy Teal

    I don’t understand the pure libertarian approach to managing the National Forests. The value of the National Forests are captured by REI and LL Bean, Subaru and 4×4 auto companies, municipal water companies, property owners bordering the Forests, and the Sierra Club.

    Now that the trees in a National Forest are not worth anything for timber, why would the Forest Service even want to put out a fire except to protect the captured values of all the others?

    (Note – this is an economic theory argument, not a real world argument.)

    Frank Reply:

    Sandy, I’m not sure where to begin. So many inaccuracies in your purely opinion-based sophistry.

    First, if you don’t understand the libertarian-based approach to land management, educate yourself. Start at Foundation for Research on Economics & the Environment (FREE). You talk about “capturing value” but you fail to mention or perhaps understand the political mismanagement of public lands, which includes subsidies for companies that profit from degrading public lands.

    Your statement that trees are worthless except for timber negates your previous statement; if trees are only good for timber, how do REI and Subaru and water companies benefit from trees?

    And as FREE points out, high-elevation timber has more value standing than as timber as it costs more to harvest it than the timber is worth on the market. Additionally,

    Roadless lands, wilderness, free-flowing rivers, national parks and forests, and healthy wildlife habitat stimulate … economic activity. These amenities attract entrepreneurs. For example Bozeman, Montana has over 60 high-tech firms in a town of 35,000. Freed by FedEx and the Internet, “modem cowboys” (and cowgirls) move here [the West] for our high environmental quality.

    If you want to understand why the Forest Service initial suppressed wildfire, read the Wiki article or try Pyne’s Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire.

    As for why fire is still suppressed, it depends on the agency and is heavily impacted by culture. As some have noted, the Wildland/Urban interface has expanded, and homeowners demand federal protection even though they built in forests that historically burned every 3-10 years (Ponderosa pines). The USFS capitalized on Euro fear and demonization of fire to combat a force deemed harmful to timber resources, and that bias and culture continues. With the NPS, human-caused wildfire is suppressed due to its location and risk to property and human safety. However, beginning in the late 1960s, the NPS broke away from the USFS paradigm of full suppression and began to reintroduce fire to the ecosystem; some natural fires in wilderness areas are allowed to burn–under close monitoring–if they meet certain criteria.

    Anyway, I’ve written another long-winded post. Seriously, it’s 2012. Never has so much information been so readily available; it just requires a few seconds of searching, a few minutes of reading, and most importantly, a willingness to use the technology rather than settling for lazy, drive-by pontification.

    Sandy Teal Reply:

    You clearly didn’t understand my comment.

    Sure lots of economic activity generated by the trees — but the Forest Service doesn’t get any of it. Since the libertarian approach of the Antiplanner requires the Forest Service to self-fund, my point was that that system would have no incentive for the Forest Service to fight the fires since it does not get the benefit of the tree.

    That other story you told is mostly a big urban myth. The “let it burn” approach is so restrictive that they let burn a meaningless number of acres. Fires burn small most of the time, except when conditions are right and then all fires burn big.

    The “subsidies” for timber companies are as real as the “subsidies” for REI and Suburu, yet you seem to think one is right and one is wrong. And the idea that the forests are responsible for “high tech” firms is just plain silly, but if you want to count it then you have to count it is another “subsidy”.

    My point is that this Antiplanner libertarian approach to public land management is cute, but it is totally full of holes as practical public management. As is this other system of attacking some “subsidies” but then calling other things “benefits”.

    Frank Reply:

    If I didn’t understand your comment, it’s because it wasn’t cogent or explicit.

    You’re also distorting my comments, essentially a strawman.

    The libertarian approach to land management is to completely ELIMINATE the Forest Service and replace it with non-profit conservation trusts. Therefore there would be NO subsidy, for anyone, the USFS, REI, Subaru, etc.

    Private, non-profit conservation trusts work across the world, with some of the largest preserving as much acreage as the National Park Service. Your unsupported assertion that this system is “full of holes as practical public management” is ludicrous and more pontification on your part.

    Please do some basic research before spouting any more nonsense and come back with some sources to back up your baseless opinions.

    Sandy Teal Reply:

    Wow. Give away billions of dollars of public assets AND exempt them from taxes! What a great deal for somebody. Every charlatan lobbyist in DC has that same plan to sell — give THEM free stuff and cut THEIR taxes.

    What instead of the libertarian fantasy land, the government made lots of money by selling the land AND then not exempting them from taxes?

    Or maybe, just maybe, there is a real world where the people want the federal government to invest billions of dollars in land assets to grow some fish and wildlife that people pay the state government a little money to hunt and fish, and pay REI, Suburu, and the Sierra Club a LOT of money to hunt and fish.

    Frank Reply:

    Sandy, you need to check yourself and your logical fallacies. Have you in the past few hours done ANY reading at all about transferring public lands to locally governed conservation trusts?

    I didn’t think so.

    Sandy Teal Reply:

    You suffer from an understanding of economics 201. Any real libertarian solution would sell the rights to the highest bidder. You want practically the opposite of libertarian — insulating your special interest from both government and the economic system.

    My point, that you seem unable to ever understand, is that even if Sierra Club or REI win the bid for public lands, they would still be grossly inefficient land managers because they would incur most of the costs and not be able to capture most of the benefits. They couldn’t get revenue from the water rights, the consumptive fish and wildlife, the camping and skiing gear, etc.

    And to bring this back to the point about this blog post, the Sierra Club would not pay to put out fires, especially not to protect building in inholdings or on the border of their land.

  5. Frank

    1. “You suffer from an understanding of economics 201.” Ad hominem. Attacking the arguer instead of the argument.

    2. “Any real libertarian solution would sell the rights to the highest bidder.” No True Scotsman.

    3. “You want practically the opposite of libertarian — insulating your special interest from both government and the economic system.” Straw man. An argument based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position.

    4. “My point, that you seem unable to ever understand, is that even if Sierra Club or REI win the bid for public lands, they would still be grossly inefficient land managers because they would incur most of the costs and not be able to capture most of the benefits. They couldn’t get revenue from the water rights, the consumptive fish and wildlife, the camping and skiing gear, etc.” Bare assertion fallacy. A dogmatic statement asserted, but unproved, which the speaker expects the listener to accept — on faith — to be true.

    5. “And to bring this back to the point about this blog post, the Sierra Club would not pay to put out fires…” Another bare assertion fallacy.

    Sandy Teal Reply:

    1. If the facts are on your sid, argue them.
    2. If the facts are against you, argue the principle.
    3. If the facts and the principles are against you, attack the other side.
    4. If the facts and the law are against you, and your attacks on the other side fail, stick your fingers in your ears and randomly spout out what your teacher writes in red on your term papers.

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