Fire Wise series part two: Firefighting burns money, manpower

Cost of battling wildfires has increased sixfold in the past decade

rbarker@idahostatesman.com hdruzin@idahostatesman.comJuly 23, 2008 

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Members of the McCall Smokejumpers prepare for a training jump out of a DC-3TP airplane at McCall Airport.

DARIN OSWALD — Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman

With a sweep of her hands, Carol McCoy-Brown shows off the park-like setting of Warm Lake, where well-spaced pine trees loom over a forest floor nearly free of underbrush.

She points to the rustic wood-frame cabins that dot the Forest Service land in the mountains southeast of McCall - all spared last August by a forest fire that burned right to the community's doorsteps.

McCoy-Brown, a district ranger with the Boise National Forest, credits a nine-year, $1.6 million Forest Service program to thin trees and clear flammable brush with keeping the 300,000-acre Cascade Complex fire at bay last year.

"It costs a lot less to do these projects than it does to fight a wildfire," she said.

But taxpayers didn't see the savings.

The Forest Service did fight that fire, at a cost of more than $53 million.

While dollars and people were devoted to this and other forest fires around the West, preventive programs - like the one at Warm Lake - were put on hold.

And fires rob federal agencies of more than just the resources needed to keep homes and cabins safe in the future. In big fire years - which, thanks in part to a century of suppression, are now more common than ever - money and manpower are diverted from recreational needs, environmental preservation and even timber sales.

Scientists and land managers say the forests need fires to be healthy. They say requiring fire-proof roofs and clearing trees and shrubs within 100 feet of rural structures is a far cheaper and less dangerous way to protect private property than attacking forest fires deep in the wilderness.

But fire managers are still putting out 98 percent of all wildfires - at a financial cost that keeps growing and a forest health cost that keeps contributing to larger and more catastrophic fires.

Federal agencies spent $1.86 billion suppressing fires last year and are spending just $80 million this year helping communities be better prepared.

Suppression spending has jumped by a factor of more than six in just a decade, while community assistance spending has dropped by a third since 2001.

McCoy-Brown is on the front lines of this suppression spending spree. With lung-choking smoke harming people's health and potentially putting their homes at risk, it is difficult for fire managers like her to tell residents they're doing anything other than going all-out to extinguish a wildfire.

Forest managers face jittery home and business owners, local officials and even governors and Congress members. The pressure to fight fires makes it easier to spend millions of dollars on fires that their training and science say would be better left to burn.

The Bush administration sought to counter the cultural and political incentives to spend money on firefighting by forcing forest managers to choose between firefighting and programs like recreation and even fire prevention. But fire suppression costs kept climbing, and now Congress is pressing for a new dedicated fund that will make even more money available to fight fires - and eliminate any financial incentive to make different decisions on the ground.

"They're definitely going in the wrong direction by providing more funds for suppression," said Alison Berry, a forest economics expert at the Property and Environment Research Center, a libertarian think tank in Bozeman. "We should be focusing more on prevention and preparedness."

NOTHING COULD STOP IT

Billowing white clouds of smoke climbed miles into the air around Warm Lake last August. At a time when tourists normally flock to the Boise National Forest retreat, surging flames and smoke forced the Forest Service to close the main road into town.

The only thing that wasn't on fire, it seemed, was the turquoise water of the area's namesake lake.

Guy Pence, who oversees fire aviation for the Boise National Forest, at first directed his crews to aggressively try to put the fire out.

Such "initial attacks" can quickly get expensive.

Every ground-crew firefighter is outfitted with $415 worth of gloves, goggles and other equipment. A 20-person crew costs about $8,600 a day to pay and feed.

Taxpayers pay $14,000 a day to keep a P-3 Lockheed Orion air tanker on call, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, the Boise command center for firefighting all over the country. When these planes take off, they cost another $6,300 an hour.

Aircraft carrying smokejumpers, water and fire retardant ate up a full $260 million of the firefighting budget last year.

As the 2007 Cascade Complex fire continued to rage in Central Idaho, Pence gradually saw that no human effort would stop the flames, and he focused his crews instead on steering the blaze away from houses and key recreational and environmentally sensitive areas.

Reflecting on the fire recently, the veteran fire manager said he could have backed off the fire earlier and achieved the same results.

But even by changing course when he did, he believes he kept the costs of the $53 million fire from ballooning to $100 million or more.

"Should we have started with that strategy earlier?" Pence said. "I wish I could tell you right now what's going to happen throughout the fire season."

He also acknowledges that the fire helped make the forest healthier - and it did that far more cheaply than logging or thinning could have.

"There's no way the Forest (Service) could have treated 1 million acres mechanically or through prescribed burns," he said.

BILLIONS SPENT TO PROTECT HOMES

Fire suppression now consumes 48 percent of the already-constrained Forest Service budget, cutting into recreation, restoration and logging programs.

And federal audits show more than half of the money the government spends on fires goes to protecting private homes and property, despite the assertion by forest officials that protecting private homes from wildfires is not the government's job.

In Idaho and other states, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent to fight fires around remote communities where just a handful of people live.

In Warm Lake and the historic mining communities of Warren and Yellow Pine, with less than 100 full-time residents between them, firefighters often outnumbered residents last summer.

Idaho conservationist Jonathan Oppenheimer credits the Forest Service for letting more fires burn in remote places, but says more can be done.

"Spending $100 million in the middle of nowhere just doesn't make any sense," said Oppenheimer, a senior conservation associate with the Idaho Conservation League, an environmental group.

For fire managers, though, the equation isn't that simple.

Fires don't stop at borders on the map, and a wildfire in national forest territory can eventually make it to state, local or private land, driving up costs for other agencies and property owners.

It can also affect business. The smoke that blanketed Central Idaho in 2007, along with many road closures, grounded outfitters and left backcountry lodges empty.

Russell Cadenhead, who co-owns the Warm Lake Lodge, watched in horror last summer as fire surrounded the community, shutting down the main road to his lodge and burning perilously close. On one August day in what is normally Cadenhead's peak season, his only guests were some local friends sharing drinks and complaints about the Forest Service.

"I'm lucky to even be open right now," he said at the time.

What adds to the frustration in Warm Lake is that the very agency that tells homeowners to "firewise" buildings to protect them from fire is keeping them from doing it.

As in communities all around the West, residents here own their cabins and lodges but lease the land from the Forest Service - and the owners must get approval for any changes to the buildings or the landscape.

Kirk Robinson, owner of Warm Lake's North Shore Lodge, said he tried for three years to get approval to put tin roofs over his cabins' brittle, flammable wood-shingle roofs. The Forest Service never got back to him, so he did it without approval.

Now, he says, the Forest Service is threatening to fine him or make him take off the tin because it isn't up to historical standards - even though Forest Service fire experts say flame-proof roofs are one of the most effective ways to protect homes from fire.

"I think it's crazy," Robinson told the Statesman on Tuesday.

Efforts to contact two different Forest Service officials on Tuesday about this situation were unsuccessful.

CHASING FIRES AT THE EXPENSE OF ALL ELSE

In 2007, the Forest Service and Interior Department spent nearly $1 billion more than was budgeted for firefighting. Congress had to come up with the difference.

Historically, the agency has borrowed from the pool of money that came from timber sales, and paid back into that pool in slow fire years or with additional funding from Congress.

As logging on public lands has declined, though, so has that money - the trust funds are already $159 million in the hole - and the Bush administration forced the Forest Service to shift money from other programs to pay for firefighting. That leaves less money for fuel reduction programs, recreation, research and other agency tasks.

Even when the agencies have money for their other duties - including thinning and community protection - fire suppression overwhelms the system.

The fires in California this year are already pulling manpower from other needs.

Roseburg Forest Products, a Medford, Ore., timber company, was waiting to bid on several logging projects poised to lose federal funding if they aren't filled by October when the fiscal year ends, said Bill Imbergamo, vice president of forestry and wood products for the American Forest and Paper Association.

But earlier this month, most of the people who are supposed to be preparing the timber sales were out fighting fires.

The National Park Service is facing the same problem, said Tom Nichols, chief of the National Park Service's Division of Fire and Aviation in Boise.

Without aggressive prescribed burning programs, the Park Service can't preserve tall-grass prairies or the groves of ancient sequoias they are charged to protect. But the people who treat these areas with controlled fires have been too busy fighting wildfires to do the burning needed in their own parks.

"We keep sloshing around the country fighting big fires here and there, and we can't maintain our own programs," Nichols said.

Heath Druzin: 373-6617Rocky Barker 377-6484

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