Declining And Misused Federal Fire Dollars: The Rim Fire

"Monster" fire consumes almost 10% of Yosemite National Park, August-September 2013 (Photo: U.S. Forest Service, InciWeb)“Monster” fire consumes almost 10% of Yosemite National Park, August-September 2013 (Photo: U.S. Forest Service)

Annual costs of fighting wildfires have grown exponentially over the past decade. They now surpass the value of resources reclaimed. The Rim Fire burning in and near Yosemite National Park has already cost over $65 million, and it is less than half contained, let alone suppressed. The second most costly fire this year (Big Windy Complex, Oregon, 19,598 acres, 1,017 personnel) consumed about a third of this amount, $21.8 million. The recent Beaver Creek, Idaho, “Beast” Fire torched 104,461 acres at a cost of $11.6 million. Reclamation and property insurance payouts will be astronomical.

The Rim Fire remains top-ranked on the national wildfire priority list. Its ferocity revives the linked issues of increasing development in the nation’s wilderness, forest management, and climate change. It also reveals immediate interactions between fire-related activities and the federal budget and sequester.

Wildfire is a necessary natural process. It periodically renews forest ecosystems, opening new areas to sunlight and rain, clearing accumulated brush, and destroying fallen and dead trees. Without fire, wood fuels (biomass) accumulate. As a result, the fire that eventually arrives in an overgrown forest is much larger and hotter than it need be.

“Since… a large, abrupt decline in burning [in the late 1800s], there is now a forest ‘fire deficit’ in the western United States,” says Jennifer Marlon, lead author of a recent investigation in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Marlon, an Associate Research Scientist at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, attributes the lack of natural wildfire to “the combined effects of human activities, ecological, and climate changes.”

Part of the vulnerability of U.S. forests to wildfire stems from poor fire management from the 1800s into the final decades of the last century. By overfighting fires and failing to manage forest lands actively, Americans have created a tinderbox out of American woodlands. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that more than 40% of our entire system needs thinning, brush clearing, and other activities such as prescribed burns, “fighting fire with fire.” The positive side of this equation is that once a forest landscape can be restored, the enormous resources now used to fight wildfires can be shifted elsewhere.

Looming climate change comprises another important part of the equation. Warming temperatures have contributed directly to the power of today’s fires. They have also encouraged plagues of killer beetles whose activity leaves behind them acres on acres of standing dead trees. Fiercer fires also increase the spread of fireprone vegetation in burned-out areas. Changes wildfires make to water (runoff, flooding, chemical alterations, etc.) and animal habitat can transform entire ecosystems over a relatively short time.

Furthermore, as explained in the draft National Climate Assessment this year, “U.S. forests currently absorb about 13% of all carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by fossil fuel burning in the U.S. Climate change, combined with current societal trends regarding land use and forest management, is projected to reduce forest CO2 uptake.” In other words, climate change itself will offset some of the the huge beneficial effect of forests in consuming carbon dioxide. Changes in the jet stream and Arctic temperatures figure in as well.

Thomas Tidwell, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service, told the Senate recently that 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.

Over the past two years, Congress has allocated less money for fire management than requested, yet the fires have become more deadly and expensive. Tidwell told the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that in recent years, having exhausted all the funds budgeted for active firefighting, the Forest Service has had to divert forest management money toward fire suppression.

Yesterday, the Guardian pointed out that a broad range of forestry officials, loggers, environmental organizations–to say nothing of firefighters themselves–believe that controlled fire and tree-thinning projects that were approved by American forestry and park officials, but never funded, might have diminished the Rim Fire.

For example, eight proposed brush and small tree clearing projects would have thinned the woods in about 25 square miles of the Groveland district of the Stanislaus National Forest. Instead, the Rim Fire used these fuels to enlarge its already impressive conflagration.

“This is a colossal unfunded backlog of critically important fuel reduction work,” said John Buckley, former firefighter and executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center.

Both this year (already) and last, the Forest Service has run out of money before the end of the fire season.

The automatic budget sequester this year hacked away at fire management expenditures that were already viciously lean. “The sequester took a 7.5% bite out of the Forest Service’s budget, nearly half of which is spent fighting wildfires,” Tim McDonnell, Associate Producer of Climate Desk, reported late in May.

“That means there will be 500 fewer pairs of boots on the ground and 200,000 fewer acres treated to prevent fires; the agency’s next proposed budget cuts preventative spending by a further 24%. It’s all part of… an increasingly distorted federal budget that has apparently forgotten the old adage about an ounce of prevention: It pours billions ($2 billion in 2012) into fighting fires but skimps on cheap, proven methods for stopping megafires before they start.”

Compounding the problems of historically poor forest management and inadequate or misplaced fire funding, “Americans have increasingly been building homes in areas where fire had been part of the natural landscape.”

When housing pressures and the desire for seclusion prompt building farther into the wilderness, owners expect property protection commensurate with construction in more developed areas. “Every summer, smoke fills the big skies yet people continue to build in the places that burn most,” said Felicity Barringer of the New York Times in a July article. “More people live in these areas, and many balk at controls on how and where to build.”

Electric utilities comply with owner intransigence by stringing forests with transmission lines to remote locations. After lightning, arcs from broken overhead wires are one of the largest single causes of wildfire. The rest of us wind up paying for reckless construction… and the fires continue to accrue, accrue.

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