Funding More Fire Suppression Won't Do The Trick

Published on March 9th, 2014 | by

March 9th, 2014 by

Rim Fire fighter, Yosemite 2013.A firefighter pauses at the $2013 Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park, August-September 2013 (Calfire photo on facebook).

President Obama released the federal budget for 2015 last week. Overall, it involves the lowest deficit ($514 billion) of his five-year tenure in office and restores some funding cut in last year’s sequester. Parts of the new plan (like those concerning carbon emissions from coal plants) are already causing controversy. However, there’s little doubt that the President’s suggested change in how the government pays to fight wildfires will receive broad recognition. Both Republicans and Democrats favor the change, which has bipartisan support and pending activity in both halls of Congress. Environmentalists, sports enthusiasts, ranchers, and loggers all see the fire suppression measure as a smart move.

Plumes from the Rim Fire near California's Central Valley from space.Fully 25% of American forests fall under one jurisdiction—the United States government. The President’s 2015 budget proposal asks Congress to pay the costs of fighting extreme blazes there in the same way it finances federal response to hurricanes and other costly weather disasters. With exceptional storms, when the President makes an official disaster proclamation, the Federal Emergency Management Agency can exceed its annual budget if necessary and use funds from a special disaster account, which is adjusted every year to reflect changes in response costs over the past decade.

The Interior and Agriculture Departments each have agencies with fire suppression responsibilities—the Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service, respectively. The new budget proposes a similar exception for them, giving each the opportunity to draw from a dedicated $1 billion “climate resiliency fund” if their fire suppression activities exceed budgeted funds.

Fire funding mechanism falls short of needs

Yes, the change will benefit government agencies working on these fires—but it’s only a band-aid. It won’t help reduce long-run deficits or promote sustainable long-run growth, two of the President’s stated objectives this year. And as Michael Goergen pointed out in Forest Health several years ago, “Never before have so many expected so much from their forests as Americans do right now. While our nation has the same amount of forestland as it did 100 years ago, 200 million more of us depend on those forests.”

According to Robert F. Powers, a long-term researcher with the Forest Service whose work has been presented in over 150 different publications, wildfires account for one-fifth of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Filling an aerial bucket at the Doce FireThe budget summary presents the new funding move as “freeing up resources to invest in areas that will promote fire risk reduction and long-term forest and rangeland health and preservation.” How this will happen is not specified. Such resources have been budgeted in the past and then diverted to pay for unexpected fire suppression expenses. We have a hundred-year legacy of overfighting fires and failing to manage our forest lands proactively—especially in the West, where most of our forests lie. Without an executive or legislative mandate, and with clamoring political and economic interests, why should 2015 be any different?

In a conference call with reporters last summer, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said:

“When you take resources to suppress fires, you sometimes have to take it from the very resources that you would use to restore property or to prevent fires to begin with. And that just basically shifts the risk to a much longer-term and more serious risk.”

There’s no reason to expect that specifying an emergency funding mechanism will enable agencies to do what they have promised and not delivered before—especially when pressures are increasing at the wildland-urban interface, with climate change delivering more severe droughts, hotter and wilder weather, and plagues of insects and fireprone invasive vegetation. As Thomas Tidwell, the Forest Service administrator, told the Senate recently:

America’s wildfire season lasts two months longer than it did 40 years ago, and today’s fires consume twice as much land, partly because of less snowfall, earlier snowmelt, higher temperatures, and increased drought (which causes fuels dry out faster) brought on by climate change–quoted by The Guardian.

In the new budget, the President has acknowledged that the costs of damage from climate change will be far greater than the costs of mitigating climate change. Fire suppression funds have become a critical expense, especially in the past decade or so, since the amounts spent have started exceeding the cost of letting fires just burn out naturally. In real dollar terms, adjusted for inflation, the USDA Forest Service and Interior Department spent an average of $1.4 billion in annual wildfire protection from 1991 to 1999. But that spending has more than doubled since—from 2002 to 2012, the agencies spent an average of $3.5 billion to fight wildfires. Adding insult to injury, the reported cost of federal fire suppression does not usually include large overhead costs or private, local, and state fire expenditures. Or the cost in human life.

Last photo of Granite Mountain Hotshots, July 2013. TV report delivered over the last photo received from the 19 Prescott Granite Mountain Hotshots killed at the Yarnell Hill fire in 2013 (screenshot from

Wildfires are necessary and natural. They periodically renew forest ecosystems, open new areas to sunlight and rain, clear accumulated brush and fallen and dead trees, favor the health of older, thick-barked, fire-resistant species, and also periodically renew forest capacity to recapture carbon. Without fire, wood fuels accumulate rapidly. As a result, the fire that eventually arrives in an overgrown forest is much larger and hotter than it need be. The Forest Service estimates that more than 40% of our entire system needs thinning, brush clearing, and “fighting fire with fire” using prescribed burns.

“A series of scientific studies have warned that increasing carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels could cause the planet to warm by more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century,” says a report from Science Daily. Climatologists expect this trend will lead to rising sea levels, stronger storms and more extreme droughts. A study published last year by Forest Service researchers concluded that wildfires will likely increase 50% across the United States under a changing climate, and over 100% in areas of the western United States by 2050.

Big Cypress fire picAnd we pay for each day we neglect our forests, not just in terms of suppression expenses, but also in ecosystem damage, watershed loss, soil degradation, reduced biodiversity, worse human health, weather instability, geometrically increasing air pollution, and faster climate change.

“Naturally occurring climate variability due to phenomena such as El Niño and La Niña impact on temperatures and precipitation on a seasonal to annual scale. But they do not alter the underlying long-term trend of rising temperatures due to climate change as a result of human activities.”—World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Michel Jarraud.

Treat forests as another infrastructure priority?

Elsewhere in the budget, the President talks about building a 21st-century infrastructure:

“Building a durable and reliable infrastructure will create good American jobs that cannot be outsourced and will provide businesses with the transportation and communication networks our economy needs. The Budget includes significant investments to repair our existing infrastructure and build the infrastructure of tomorrow.”

The President has proposed spending $302 billion over four years on infrastructure projects to “fix-it-first”—i.e., not build more, but improve America’s roads, bridges, transit systems, and railways and concurrently create jobs.

Why not consider forests as natural infrastructure, then? We could apply the same logic to our jointly owned woodlands as to our built resources. The United Nations Food And Agriculture Organization characterizes forest value in much broader terms than we do:

• Extent of forest resources;
• Biological diversity;
• Forest health and vitality;
• Productive functions of forest resources;
• Protective functions of forest resources; and
• Socioeconomic functions.

This inclusiveness may benefit us much more than a simple and traditional assessment of “timber.” Investment in forest infrastructure here is said to create jobs more efficiently than investment in any another sector—twice as many jobs per dollar as transportation, for example.

“The key is to begin long before the sparks fly,” says researcher Alison Berry. She also stresses the usefulness to forest management of protecting the WUI with related but traditionally nongovernmental approaches such as increased homeowner participation in both fireprepping their property and defending it in forest emergencies, builders using fire-resistant materials, and insurance industry fire retardant wisdom. Using careful regression modeling may also improve suppression strategies.

Attacking the symptoms, neglecting the cause

The current approach to wildfires, still blind to modern forest management and lacking creative financial approaches from the political side, is not only old-fashioned. It’s also very unproductive, and the regulatory environment offers no incentive to invest in sustainable changes. Turning from shortsighted, wasteful treatment of the forest resource to positive measures may help us solve other pressing problems and come closer to achieving many national goals. And it does not have to involve a permanent effort. Once forests are restored, the huge sums now used to fight wildfires can be shifted in more productive directions.

Vision fire, Point Reyes National Seashore, 1995.Goergen suggested that “perhaps we should view forest-based bioenergy in a new light.” Traditional woody biomass in large quantities and recent technologies to consume it more efficiently could offer a useful energy stopgap while cleaner possibilities emerge. The Department of Energy estimates that biomass has just passed hydropower as the largest domestic source of renewable energy accounting for more than half of what we use. A congressional advisory committee envisions biofuels replacing 30% of current U.S. petroleum consumption by 2030.

Generating power with otherwise wasted wood produced by thinning and ground fuel removal would present less environmental detriment, in terms of carbon dioxide and mercury pollution, than burning fossil fuels. And lignocellulosic biofuels can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 90% when compared with petroleum. There are also advantages in terms of oil price spikes, energy security, and regional economic development.

Then there’s transportation, the world’s second largest energy consumer. Although second-generation biofuels currently receive much techy attention, waste cellulose and its ready conversion to ethanol already replace a large amount of nonrenewable fossil fuels. (Several European and Asian countries even used gasification 60 years ago because World War II cost them easy, cost-effective access to oil.) Using first-generation biodiesel for transport saves at least 25% (and up to 82%, depending on the feedstock) over using crude oil diesel.

“Earlier this year, a city in Alabama launched the nation’s first program for collecting municipal wood waste and converting it, through biomass gasification, into ethanol for use as an automotive biofuel. Under the program, tree limbs from curbside collection will be broken down by heat and pressure into raw materials, which will then be combined to produce ethanol. The company behind the operation said it could soon be producing 45 million gallons of the fuel annually.”

Another issue facing us is unemployment, otherwise known as “jobs, jobs, jobs.” In his new National Parks Centennial Initiative, the President speaks about “putting youth, returning veterans, and other Americans to work restoring some of our greatest historical, cultural, and natural treasures.” Why limit their efforts to these areas? The Department of Labor’s budget message makes clear that the untrained, our honorably discharged service members, and the long-term unemployed deserve a better life than the US now has to offer them. Not only does harvesting biomass provide jobs, but building and operating conversion facilities involves hiring architects and engineers, well-trained technicians, and skilled laborers. Reforestation, too, especially in the South, would benefit from such attention.

Forests are natural defenses against climate change. They consume carbon dioxide, rather than emitting it. They preserve water quality and nourish the resource. They interact with the forces of biodiversity and socioeconomics. The American people and their officials need to realize that in some cases, neglecting forest health and spending “extra” money on active wildfire suppression is tantamount to lighting a flame to the cash. Active forest management merits attention and a place in our financial planning next to fire suppression. Putting the brakes on climate change—a threat woven into the budget of every federal department this year—may be the real long-term payoff. September in the Forest, Larisa Koshkina, public domain.)

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