CONTROLLING SUPPRESSION COSTS

As this paper has demonstrated, there are a number of socioenvironmental, institutional, and operational factors that are driving up the cost of wildfire suppression. Over the last fifteen years as this issue has become a growing public and professional concern, there have been literally dozens of reports great and small that have offered hundreds of recommendations for controlling or containing suppression costs.

The bibliography at the end of this paper provides the references to many of these reports. Unfortunately, few of these reports’ recommendations have been implemented. Still, the issue remains: wildfire suppression and its escalating cost is economically, socially, and ecologically unsustainable.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to address all of the proposed solutions to rising suppression spending that have been offered to date, but there should be some kind of blue ribbon commission or federal advisory panel that conducts a comprehensive review of these recommendations, and devises some kind of action plan for implementing them. What follows are a few general ideas for a place to start crafting more specific solutions for each of the factors discussed in this paper. One thing is for sure: taxpayers and other concerned citizens are going to have to push Congress and the Administration to get serious about imposing hard limits on suppression spending, and create real alternatives to business-as-usual firefighting that is quite literally becoming another big business.

In addressing socioenvironmental factors, there is no way it will be economically possible to mechanically treat all the acres of public land needing fuels reduction. Ultimately, wildfire is going to be the primary means of reducing and managing fuel loads across the landscape. Not only is fire the least expensive, but it is also the most natural and ecologically sound means of doing this. However, this is not a call for a passive, “let burn” program, particularly in areas where excessive fuels will likely result in uncharacteristically high-severity effects. In the short-term, what could be done is to construct fuelbreaks in some high-priority sites that offer potential “anchor” sites for managing future fires. Forest Service scientist, Dr. Mark Finney, offers a “fuels treatment optimization” model for making smart choices for these strategically placed fuelbreak sites.106 By using his model, treating fuels on a small portion of the landscape enables crews to manage fire across a much larger area, at a fraction of the cost of manipulating the entire landscape. More importantly, any manipulation of the environment, including fuels management, must be grounded in fire ecology principles and sustainability values.107

Suppression costs related to WUI protection will only start declining when new housing development is restricted and existing homes and communities take steps to properly prepare for fire. Forest Service scientist, Jack Cohen, offers the best science-based recommendations for reducing fire hazards within the critical “home ignition zone.”108 His work is inspiring programs such as FireWise and FireSafe Councils. A well-funded program to target community wildfire preparation would be a wise investment of taxpayer dollars because once the fear of wildfire destruction is reduced among rural residents and land managers, this will enable fire managers to utilize wildfire on the broader landscape to reduce fuels and restore ecosystems, further protecting communities. The nonprofit organization, Headwaters Economics, offers detailed analysis of 10 specific proposals for preventing and mitigating wildfire risks and hazards in the WUI, and each one of them could result in real cost savings.109

The issue of climate change is immense and will require fundamental societal change in order to fully address. Reducing human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases is simultaneously the easiest and most difficult solution, but even an immediate cessation of fossil fuel burning today will not result in a tangible reduction in wildfire activity in the near future. There is considerable interest among policymakers for protecting forests for their carbon sequestration capacity, and this is creating a new rationale for even more aggressive and expensive suppression efforts. But ramping up suppression efforts to try to exclude fire and save every stick of forest carbon from wildfire will cause its own ecological problems, and will ultimately fail as the past century of attempted fire exclusion is failing to prevent all wildfires. Instead, the nonprofit organization, Association for Fire Ecology, urges land managers to utilize fire management techniques to help ecosystems adapt to climate change, and to maximize long-term forest carbon stores.110 By working with fire to reduce the amount of small-diameter understory vegetation that holds the least carbon but provides fuel for high-intensity wildfires, managers can enhance the natural fire resistance of large-diameter trees and soils that hold the most carbon. This counterintuitive strategy of using fire rather than fighting fire has the best chance of maximizing long-term carbon storage, as well as helping ecosystems adapt to ongoing climate change.

In addressing institutional factors that are driving higher suppression costs, Congress must end the “blank check” budgetary structure and set of perverse incentives for wildfire suppression. The FY2010 Interior Appropriations Act authorized and funded the FLAME Act, which partitions suppression budgets into normal “initial attack” and emergency “catastrophic wildfire” efforts. This will provide more transparent accounting for expenditures on small versus large wildfires, but will not end the practice of deficit spending or budget borrowing unless and until Congress establishes some hard budgetary limits on suppression expenditures. As well, Congress needs to stop signaling to agencies in the normal appropriations process that they are willing to spend the majority of fire management funds on suppression activities. Congress needs to set fixed budgets and hard limits for suppression, forcing managers to be more strategic and selective with their use of firefighting resources, and then provide incentives for proactive fire management by allowing managers to take any unused suppression dollars at the end of the fiscal year and spend it on such things as fire planning, fuels reduction, and ecosystem restoration.111 This would not necessarily save taxpayers’ money in the near term, but instead, would stop spending it on activities that damage ecosystems and degrade resources, while investing tax dollars on activities that sustain ecosystems and enhance resource values over the long term.

The growing use of private contract firefighting companies was propelled by ideological beliefs that prefer profit-seeking businesses over service-providing government agencies. There are some things like firecamp support and services that private businesses could perform better at less cost than agencies, and there are some things that local communities should be able to provide that will yield local economic benefits, but there are other things that businesses or communities cannot provide either at lower cost or higher quality than professional public agency crews. In particular, Congress should consider letting agencies purchase the essential aircraft, vehicles, and equipment that are known will be needed every fire season, and are some of the highest cost items used in firefighting, but are currently provided by contractors or private businesses. These purchases will actually increase taxpayer expenditures in the short-run, but save tax dollars in the long-run, and will be put in the hands of people motivated by a desire for public service rather than private profit. An expansion of the federal fire management workforce for duties beyond suppression work (e.g. fire planning, fuels management, fire effects monitoring) would also provide a number of socioeconomic and ecological benefits well worth the investment.

Renegotiating cost-share agreements between the federal and state governments are a necessary but insufficient means of reducing suppression costs, because simply shifting the balance of who pays for firefighting will not necessarily result in less suppression spending. However, the states and local county governments must become more accountable for new housing development and fire hazard mitigation in the WUI, and forcing them to pay more of the costs of WUI wildfire protection would make it in their economic interest to reduce wildfire risks and hazards on lands within their jurisdiction. Regardless, taxpayers across the country deserve more equity between who pays and who benefits from federal wildfire protection.

The operational factors that are increasing suppression costs offer the greatest potential for immediate savings because the specific strategies and tactics used to manage wildfires—beginning with the initial decision whether or not to suppress a wildfire—have the most direct bearing on costs. Much, much educational work must be done to re-educate the public, elected officials, and the newsmedia about the ecological role of fire and the reasons for managing wildfires for resource benefits instead of simply “fighting” them. The Obama Administration’s new guidance for implementation of the federal wildland fire management policy provides plenty of authority for an expanded repertoire of fire management actions including simultaneous fire use and suppression actions.112 But without full internal organizational support for doing alternative management approaches besides traditional suppression, managers know they risk “career suicide” if something disastrous results from fire use strategies (e.g. firefighters die or homes are destroyed).

The fact needs to be acknowledged, though, that firefighter fatalities and destroyed homes are annual occurrences despite—or in some cases because of–full suppression strategies and aggressive firefighting tactics. As climate change continues, the conditions that cause extreme fire behavior are only going to get worse unless and until hazardous fuel loads are reduced and fire-adapted ecosystems are restored—and fire is the most practical, ecological, and economical management “tool” to accomplish those tasks. New career incentives must be created to encourage managers to minimize the firefighter safety risks, taxpayer costs, and environmental damage caused from fighting fire while maximizing the social and ecological benefits of managing fire. With firefighter and public safety and community protection foremost in mind, every wildland ignition should be managed with this kind of “minimax” strategic thinking. Indeed, the normal risk assessment process that managers undertake must be reversed such that the most risky thing they do for their careers is to send firefighters into remote backcountry areas on “combat” missions to “fight” fire and put it out, while the least risky thing would be to work with fire, carefully managing its course across the landscape, to accomplish a suite of well-planned social and ecological objectives.

Managing fire across the landscape may not actually yield any immediate economic savings compared to traditional suppression, because it will still cost money to send crews with the right tools to manage wildfires safely and effectively. But these expenditures of tax dollars in ecological fire management will provide some positive long-term benefits to taxpayers and the land (e.g. improved forest health, restored habitat, reduced potential for future high-severity wildfire) as opposed to the ongoing negative environmental and ecological impacts of aggressive suppression. In this regard, the costs of ecologically managing wildfires should be viewed as land stewardship “investments” rather than expenditures.

There will always be the need for suppression actions when wildfires threaten lives, homes, and communities, or when the adverse effects of fire threaten other desired social or ecological values. But fighting all fires in all places at any cost is simply not economically sustainable. Scattering suppression resources all over the landscape and fighting fires that could do beneficial ecological work not only poses a long-term opportunity cost that will require much greater future expenditures (e.g. fuels reduction projects or firefighting actions, likely during worse fire weather conditions), but it also creates immediate gaps in protection where firefighters are vitally necessary, such as the WUI zone. A far more rational strategy from both an economic and ecological standpoint would be to focus fire management resources on suppressing “frontcountry” wildfires located near communities, while managing “backcountry” wildfires in remote wildlands, fire-dependent ecosystems, roadless and wilderness areas. The current system of “total war” on wildfire is breaking the bank and cannot continue—we must become more strategic and selective in the fires we must suppress, and more opportunistic and receptive to the fires we can use.

POST-SCRIPT: THE COHESIVE STRATEGY FOR WILDFIRE MANAGEMENT

At the time of this writing (May 2010), federal agencies are developing a “Cohesive Strategy for Wildfire Management” in accordance with a Congressional mandate written into the FY2010 Interior Appropriations Act. The Government Accountability Office revealed back in 1999 that the Forest Service lacked some kind of cohesive strategy for managing fire and fuels, and in a series of reports over the last decade has critiqued some of the economic consequences resulting from this lack of strategic focus.113 The Forest Service drafted its own Cohesive Strategy in 2000, and this was shelved in order to develop an interagency plan with Department of Interior agencies in 2002, but the Bush Administration failed to complete or implement a final strategic plan, and promoted its “Healthy Forests Initiative” instead.

The Cohesive Strategy is still in the early drafting stage, but federal officials have hinted that given the extremely large scope and minimal time frame for the project, they are hoping to develop a kind of template for continued fire planning at the local, site-specific level. The Cohesive Strategy’s template will hopefully take an “all-lands” approach in that not only will fire planning be interagency, but will also encompass State and possibly private lands, too, building on the success of Community Wildfire Protection Plans. As well, the template may take an “all-communities” approach so that every community- at-risk from wildfire hazards in every region across the U.S. will be included. Finally, and most importantly, the template will take an “all-options” approach to fire management objectives, strategies and tactics. The overall goal of the Cohesive Strategy should be to foster fire-adapted communities, restore fire-dependent ecosystems, and reduce the risks, costs, and damages of wildfires and fire suppression.

The hope is that the Cohesive Strategy will continue the progressive trend in fire policy reform that began soon after the Obama Administration took office. In March of 2009 the Administration authorized one of the most profound changes in fire management policy in the last 40 years. The Administration’s new “Guidance for Implementation of the Federal Wildland Fire Policy” ends the bifurcation in fire management between fire suppression and fire use, and allows every wildfire to be managed for multiple objectives concurrently.114 This means that fire managers can choose “point protection” rather than “perimeter control” strategies, focusing suppression resources on the specific sites where they are needed. Thus, for example, crews may aggressively suppress one part of a wildfire in order to protect a threatened community, while on another portion of the same fire, they may apply fire use or simply monitor its natural spread into uninhabited wildlands in order to fulfill fuels reduction or forest restoration goals. This new policy enables wildfires to be managed with both economic rationality (i.e. fire use and fire monitoring are generally far less expensive than full suppression with perimeter control) and ecological rationality (i.e. enabling fire to play its natural and necessary ecological role).

The most valuable contribution of the Cohesive Strategy may be to inspire a new round of fire management planning. The creation of fire management plans (FMPs) was one of the hallmarks and highest priorities of the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy.115 According to the Fire Policy, agencies were required to develop FMPs for “all areas subject to wildland fire.” These plans were supposed to be interagency, based on the best available science, and include a full range of fire management actions to integrate both fire protection and fire use. Unfortunately, previous Administrations and Congress neglected to prioritize or fund the development of FMPs despite the Forest Service’s realization a decade ago that for every dollar it spent on it planning and preparation the agency saved five to seven dollars in fire suppression and rehabilitation costs.116 More recently, researchers used an econometric model to determine that each dollar increase in suppression costs reduces potential resource damage by 12 cents, but each dollar invested in pre-suppression preparedness activities like fire planning reduces suppression expenditures by $3.76, making an investment in fire management planning much more cost-effective than the “blank check” approach to funding fire suppression.117 If the Cohesive Strategy inspires new fire planning that enables managers to use fires for resource benefits and avoid unnecessary suppression actions, then tangible taxpayer savings may result in the near term.

Given the fact that climate change will cause many wildfires to burn larger and longer, the real issue in the near future will not be cost reduction or even cost containment, but rather, cost management. Expenditures may still remain high as the amount of burned acres continues to grow up to a predicted 10-12 million acres per year.118 Indeed, there are sound arguments for actually increasing appropriated budgets for federal fire management.119 However, on both economic and ecological grounds, the conventional “warfare” approach to “fighting” fire is inefficient, ineffective, irrational, and unsustainable.120 If the Cohesive Strategy supports the Obama Administration’s progressive reforms of the Federal Fire Management Policy, then future wildfires will be appropriately managed in ways that maximize the social and ecological benefits of burning, while minimizing firefighter risks, property damages, and taxpayer costs.121 Using wildfires to achieve long-term fuels reduction and ecosystem restoration goals will make the expense of managing wildfires become more like investments in ecosystem restoration and land stewardship rather than “costs.” But, it all depends upon federal agencies taking this historic opportunity to complete the paradigm shift from “fire control to fire management,” and change the focus from fighting against fire to working and living with fire. One thing seems clear: over the last century fire control was itself out of control, breaking the bank and subverting the conservationist missions of federal agencies. Any effort to contain or control costs must begin with the economically and ecologically rationale step of controlling the over-use of overaggressive wildfire suppression, instilling more accountability in agencies and creating more incentives for fire managers to implement the most socially and ecologically appropriate management responses to wildfire.