A Taxpayer's Guide To Wildfires: Part 5
It is the largest 2% of all wildfires that consume 94% of total federal suppression expenditures.
10 MINUTE READ
LESSONS LEARNED, LOOKING TO THE FUTURE, SUMMARY
Wildfire activity has increased in the U.S. over the last 20 years, measured by the total increase in burned acres, and the growing frequency of large-scale, long-duration wildfires that the media has dubbed “megafires.” Coinciding with this rise in wildfire activity have been rapidly rising fire suppression costs. It is the largest 2% of all wildfires that consume 94% of total federal suppression expenditures. On a per- acre basis, firefighting is the most expensive kind of management activity that federal land management agencies perform. More and more suppression resources are being poured into the battle against blazes, burning up taxpayer dollars to corral wildfires that are increasingly becoming more difficult if not impossible to encircle and extinguish, at least until the weather changes.
Aggressive fire suppression in backcountry wildlands can be a “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” kind of enterprise: it is a waste of money when large fires are aggressively fought during conditions that make them humanly uncontrollable (e.g. severe weather conditions prevail), or when small fires are put out during conditions that are suitable for utilizing the fire for resource or ecological benefits. Each “successful” suppression effort in remote wilderness/roadless areas represents a missed opportunity to reduce fuels or restore ecosystems with fire, and this externalizes the costs of future fuels projects or suppression actions in the areas where fire was suppressed and/or excluded. As well, expensive rehabilitation projects are required to mitigate the damage caused by excessive suppression actions.105 There are plenty of ecological arguments against systematic fire suppression across the landscape, but the economics of suppression in remote backcountry wildlands or fire-dependent ecosystems are the most glaringly irrational—firefighting is almost all cost and no benefit.
Wildfire activity and suppression costs are rising mainly from the synergistic relationship of three socioenvironmental factors: growing fuels accumulations in part due to past (and still ongoing!) fire suppression, expanding housing developments in fire-prone environments, and unfolding climate change due to global warming. Excessive fuel loads have been depicted as the main culprit for large-scale wildfires since the early 1990s when the Forest Service and timber industry proclaimed a “forest health crisis” due to “overstocked stands of diseased, dead and dying trees.” The Bush Administration prioritized mechanical fuels reduction, especially commercial thinning, but the pace and scale of projects failed to keep up with escalating wildfire activity. Because it would cost billions of dollars to mechanically treat fuels across millions of acres of public wildlands, and all fuels treatments would have to be maintained in perpetuity in order to affect wildfire behavior, this is not a realistic strategy from an economic standpoint. Landscape-scale mechanical fuels reduction will not avoid taxpayer expenditures, but rather, merely shift funds from suppression to fuels reduction, causing a host of environmental impacts of its own. And the fact of the matter is that there are areas too steep, rugged, or remote for machines and people to work, making fire the most practical, economical, and ecologically-sound means of reducing fuels, especially the small-diameter surface fuels that spread wildfires.
Next to total fire size, the percentage of private property and human structures within a wildfire perimeter is the most significant factor driving up suppression costs. Managing fire to protect the WUI is more complex, costly, and is potentially the most hazardous assignment for firefighters. A single wildfire can threaten hundreds of homes simultaneously, overwhelming the capacity of firefighters. Their jobs are made more difficult because many homes and communities are located in indefensible areas (e.g. steep slopes thick with flammable vegetation), are poorly designed or constructed (e.g. have flammable roofs or decks that are easily ignited by the tiniest of embers), or homeowners have not managed the vegetation within their “home ignition zone” (a 200 foot radius around structures that is the most critical area within the general WUI zone). Flexibility and mobility are two of firefighters’ best safety assets, but these are often compromised when they have to protect homes and communities that have no defensible space for safety zones or escape routes. Adding to the high danger associated with WUI wildfire protection is that because of the potential huge losses of citizens’ lives, homes, and businesses, firefighters often feel compelled to take greater risks. To mitigate these risks, fire managers usually order greater suppression resources—lots of crews and the “heavy metal” of aircraft and engines—even if these will be futile in stopping wildfire spread. These are the main factors that make WUI wildfire suppression so expensive.
Because the WUI zone may not offer the best fuel or terrain conditions for safe or effective suppression operations, firefighters are more often sent into backcountry wildlands to attack fires that may pose a risk— no matter how small the probability—of spreading toward the WUI. This not only results in an increase in direct suppression costs, but also an “opportunity cost” of failing to manage wildland fires for fuel reduction or forest restoration objectives. Thus, firefighters may either be sent to the WUI zone where some of the worst places for safe, effective wildland firefighting actions are located, or may be sent to backcountry areas to control fire in places or conditions that would otherwise be ideal for using fire use for resource benefits. Until communities are properly prepared for fire, the societal expectations for managers to prevent home losses to wildfire at any and all costs—even if they are desperate, futile acts far away from the WUI—will continue to fuel higher suppression expenditures in the years ahead. Indeed, a 50% growth in housing development could raise annual suppression costs up to two to four billion dollars—literally doubling the Forest Service’s entire budget for fire suppression!
Global warming-caused climate change is the last but not least of the top three most-cited causes of rising suppression costs. Climate change has been the main cause of increases in the length of wildfire season, the number of total acres burned, and the growing frequency of large wildfires or “megafires” since the late 1980s. Climate change effects are just now beginning to show up in changes in weather patterns, precipitation regimes, and vegetation cover, all of which affect fire behavior. The agencies predict that in the near future 10-12 million acres will burn each year (compared to 6-8 million that currently makes up a “bad” fire season). A mere 1 degree Fahrenheit increase in average temperature is estimated will cause a 305% increase in area burned in the U.S. and a 107% increase in suppression costs just to protect the WUI. Few climate experts anticipate climate change to halt at just one degree increase, so this is likely a conservative estimate of the adverse effects of climate change on fire size and suppression costs. One thing seems clear: climate conditions conducive to large-scale, long-duration wildfires that defy human attempts to contain and control them will become the norm, and a reactive strategy based on emergency fire suppression to avoid the adverse impacts of fires to communities or ecosystems is doomed to fail, at a huge economic and ecological cost.
In addition to the above three socioenvironmental factors, there are some institutional factors within agencies that also account for rising suppression costs. The longstanding “open checkbook” attitude among land and fire managers is a major source of high-cost suppression incidents. The way Congress provides funding for fire management offers near-unlimited funding for reactive emergency suppression actions, but little or no incentives for proactive planning or restoration projects. Land and fire managers have no real fiscal constraints for spending whatever they desire on firefighting actions, and despite numerous reports and recommendations on the issue of cost containment, they face no accountability for failing to control costs. The system of deficit spending and budget borrowing provides a perverse incentive to focus on reactive suppression versus proactive fire and fuels management, especially when funding for all other government programs are generally declining.
Another institutional source of escalating suppression costs comes from the use of private firefighting contractors. Private contractors account for the majority of costs, taking roughly two-thirds of the dollars spent on large wildfire suppression incidents. Turning fire management from a government service into a profit-seeking business has not only raised costs, but has resulted in problems over the poor quality of services provided by some contractors. Thus, the promises that private contractors would provide better, cheaper, more efficient firefighting services have proven to be false. Nevertheless individual Congresspersons and land managers continue to promote the use of contractors mainly for ideological and political reasons. Even more ominous, the formation of a special interest group dependent on taxpayer dollars for firefighting creates an organized opposition to the effort to contain costs, and poses a threat to progressive policy changes that would help shift the agencies from emergency fire suppression to well- planned fire management.
Finally, another institutional factor underlying rising suppression costs is due to the cost-share agreements between the federal and state governments that requires federal agencies to pick up most of the tab for fighting multi-jurisdictional wildfires. The States have rightly criticized the land management policies and practices of federal agencies that resulted in elevated hazardous fuel loads that, in turn, increase the wildfire risks to State and private lands, but the States and private landowners have wrongly opposed the expanded use of fire that could reduce those fuels. The Feds are right in criticizing State, County, and local governments for lax regulation of housing development in fire-prone landscapes. Oftentimes the main reason that federal agencies feel compelled to fight fires on federal lands is because communities are located in high-risk fire zones, and have failed to prepare plans or treat hazardous fuels on private lands within the WUI.
Many State and local governments have not just failed to enact or enforce land use zoning, building codes, or vegetation management ordinances that would eliminate or mitigate the wildfire risks to communities— they are ideologically or politically opposed to them. Federal wildfire protection thus functions as a kind of subsidy if not perverse incentive for sprawling WUI development. States and counties receive all the tax benefits from development in the WUI, but do not pay their fair share of the costs for suppression or recovery efforts that benefit local communities at the expense of taxpayers nationwide. Simply shifting some of the suppression costs from the federal government to State and County governments would not, by itself, directly reduce those costs. However, having greater equity in paying for suppression would provide incentives for local governments to regulate WUI development and prepare communities for wildfire. This would indirectly reduce costs by eliminating the need for some fire suppression actions, especially on distant backcountry fires on federal lands.
In addition to the socioenvironmental and institutional factors that are fueling increased suppression spending, costs are heavily influenced by operational factors or the very strategies and tactics that fire managers select to manage wildfires. These operational factors are among the least examined issues presented in all the various reports and investigations of suppression spending, yet in many respects, they are the most critical. One operational factor concerns the “external” cultural or political pressure of societal expectations placed on fire managers to select aggressive initial attack and full suppression as their preferred response to wildfires. Due to Smokey Bear social conditioning, most people and the politicians they elect want all wildfires to be put out as swiftly as possible, and typically oppose prescribed burning, fire use, or other alternatives to total fire suppression. Fire managers order aggressive suppression and full perimeter control even during conditions that make these efforts highly risky to firefighters or are ineffective—a waste of taxpayer dollars done for “political shows.”
Relatedly, politicians also conduct their own “political shows” that impose high costs when they visit fire camps with large entourages of aids and reporters. On these visits they usually insist upon observational flights or driving tours, meetings with fire commanders, and photo-ops with firefighters, all of which can distract managers and crews from their prime tasks at hand, and costs money that is charged to the suppression account. Even fire managers who understand the economic costs and ecological impacts of suppression cannot or will not resist the external pressure to fight nearly all wildfires. As long as the majority of the public, politicians, and the press consider firefighting to be “heroic” and the “moral equivalent of war,” support for firefighting-at-all-costs will continue to raise the costs of suppression operations.
Another operational factor that imposes “internal” pressure on managers to select aggressive suppression responses concerns leadership issues: managers who are adverse to career risks and lack accountability for their decisions and actions. There is a double standard within the agencies such that prescribed burning projects must go through lengthy and expensive public planning processes, and must be paid for by fixed budgets, while firefighting does not require any of that—managers have maximum discretion with little to no public accountability or fiscal constraints. Moreover, if a prescribed fire escapes its management boundaries, or if a fire use incident burns private property, managers face intense public anger and it may be a “career-ending event.” But if homes are destroyed from a poorly-executed backfire that causes a wildfire to “blow up,” then that manager will be forgiven if they even face any public or professional criticism at all. In essence, managers are vilified if accidents occur when they are using fire, but are normally absolved of any blame if and when accidents occur while they are fighting fire. This double- standard between fire suppression and fire use accidents accounts for what some critics have called “risk- adverse” managers, another internal operational factor underlying rising suppression costs.
The label of “risk-adverse” applies to those managers who select aggressive fire suppression actions in order to avoid potential public controversy or professional criticism for selecting less aggressive fire use actions. However, it is a misnomer to call them “risk-adverse.” In fact, they are comfortable with creating risk for firefighters by exposing them to the inherent health and safety hazards of aggressive firefighting. Every year on average a couple dozen firefighters, most of them young women and men, lose their lives while firefighting. The potential loss of life or limb of firefighters does not normally factor into the economic costs of suppression, but it should.
There are hazards, including fatal accidents, associated with prescribed burning and fire use, too, but these are generally less hazardous and far safer actions than aggressive suppression. There are also risks to management programs that may go unfunded because so much money is being spent on suppression. Although most people believe that allowing wildfires to burn is risky, it is equally if not more true that there are significant risks in not allowing wildfires to burn. Unless and until the calculation of risk is inverted so that sending people and/or spending taxpayer dollars on suppression actions are viewed as the most risky thing for a manager’s career or reputation, while igniting prescribed fires or using wildland fires are seen as the least risky decisions by a manager, then suppression costs will continue to increase through the external and internal biases constantly favoring suppression responses to wildfires.