Dozens of fires burned unattended in North Idaho in August because there weren’t enough firefighters to go around.
The fires were burning in the backcountry, away from communities, homes and structures. More than 32,000 firefighters were fighting other, larger fires threatening communities across the Northwest, in Montana and in California, and the U.S. Forest Service was spending more than $240 million a week.
These unattended fires are the exception. Records show that 98 percent of all fires that start in the West are put out before they grow to 300 acres.
But the 2 percent that escape containment are increasingly likely to burn under extreme conditions on lands that are thick with fuel, accounting for 97 percent of the wildfire suppression costs and area burned. Since the early 1990s, foresters have argued that we could reduce these costs and the areas burned if we could implement a combination of mechanical thinning – logging – and prescribed burning.
At the same time, fire managers allowed just .04 percent of national forests to burn, said a report by forest scientists published this month in Science, a peer-reviewed journal. Unattended fires like the ones that burned in North Idaho this year are the least-expensive fuel treatments available — not that managers would have left them unattended in those extreme weather conditions if they’d had enough manpower.
Still, even though some places did burn severely and will require rehabilitation to reduce erosion, much of the effect was positive, said Jay Kirchner, a Panhandle National Forest spokesman.
“We won’t know the extent until October,” Kirchner said.
The public is skeptical of letting fires burn, and there are liability issues and little management tolerance for error, the scientists noted. Part of the challenge and much of the cost is protecting the 44 million houses that lie within the wildland-urban interface and are vulnerable to wildfire.
If the federal government could spend half a billion annually on thinning and prescribed burning, and if state and local governments could spend the same amount on preparedness and firewise practices around homes, “we can reduce the total costs to society” of wildfires, said Christopher Topik, a former Appropriations Committee staffer who is now director of Restoring the Nation’s Forests at the Nature Conservancy.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
Since the 1980s, the incidence of large wildfires has grown by four times and the length of the fire season has risen 64 percent, the U.S. Forest Service said. The federal cost of firefighting has risen from $600 million in 1995 to a high of $3 billion in 2014. State expenditures have doubled since 1998 to $1.6 billion.
Thinning and prescribed burning have increased steadily in Idaho since 2001, but have been hindered nationwide by federal policies that require agencies to take money from other programs when the federal firefighting money is exhausted. The Forest Service shifted $250 million from other accounts — including money from hazardous fuel treatments — to pay for firefighting this year. Firefighting costs are $700 million over the appropriation.
Most scientists expect the warming trend will continue, meaning longer and more expensive fire seasons. The Forest Service, which incurs about 70 percent of all fire costs, predicts annual firefighting costs will average nearly $1.8 billion by 2026, up from an average of $1 billion in 2013.
“That’s going to overwhelm everything we’re trying to do,” said John Freemuth, a Boise State University professor specializing in public land policy.
“If drought and climate change have created a more fire-prone landscape and if we are thus more likely to see bigger, more expensive fires, then are we in the position to rethink how we spend money on suppression? Do we ‘triage’ differently?”
South-central Idaho is sort of an anomaly. Most of the Payette, Boise and Salmon-Challis national forests have burned over the past 25 years, reducing built-up fuels and making the forests more resilient. Idaho also is increasing thinning and prescribed burning, from treating 30,000 acres in 2001 to more than 120,000 acres in 2013.
Increasingly this allows firefighters to herd new fires into old burns, which can reduce fire’s ferocity except under the most extreme conditions.
WHAT ABOUT STATE COSTS?
Idaho has 53 million acres of land in all ownerships, divided into 16 forest protective districts. Some are protected by the Forest Service and the BLM, some by the state and private protective districts with state oversight, and others by tribes. The state and the fire protective districts charge forest land owners 60 cents an acre for fire protection — and another $40 per parcel if there are structures — but set a maximum limit and let taxpayers pay costs above that.
The state and the federal districts include thousands of rural homes and subdivisions that get protection.
So when the Beaver Creek Fire burned into Hailey and the Wood River Valley in 2013, the federal government was responsible. When fires this year burned off private and state lands into Kamiah, the state was primarily responsible.
Local governments share some responsibility, but often get grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover extraordinary costs.
Overall, Idaho taxpayers face a $50 million bill for firefighting so far this year — after the federal government reimburses $17 million of the $67 million the state spent. Wildfires have burned 726,000 acres across ownerships and 69,000 acres burned within the 6.2 million acres for which the state provides fire protection.
More aggressive management is often proposed as a preventive measure, with the argument that forests that are thinned more often and harvested more frequently are less subject to destructive fire. But that’s only true up to a point, new science is revealing.
Idaho forests are managed for maximum return to schools, universities and other state causes. But despite that active management, wildfire burned 27,000 acres of Idaho endowment forest and range lands and 119,000 acres of private land. On national forests, 340,000 acres burned, as did 226,000 acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
The Clearwater Complex around Kamiah burned 47,000 state, private tribal and federal land, and cost more than $27 million to fight.
“That’s been our largest most expensive fire,” David Groeschl, Idaho State Forester, reported to the state Land Board earlier this month.
DO WE NEED MORE FIRE?
The Science commentary, written by Northwest forest scientists led by Forest Service research forest ecologist Malcolm North, called for more thinning, more prescribed fire and more fires being allowed to burn. Thinning and prescribed burning have widespread support; putting fires out right away remains controversial.
But all these measures face obstacles, the scientists said. And Julian Morris, vice president of research at the libertarian Reason Foundation, is doubtful such a policy can be implemented without radical reforms.
“Employees of federal agencies seek to protect their jobs,” Morris wrote. “Homeowners and business in forested areas demand ‘protection’ from fires. And environmental activists vigorously oppose a resumption of logging.”
Some are more optimistic. Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, is working with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on a bill that would transform emergency funding for fire response. The bill would change the way the feds pay for firefighting — treating fires like the natural disasters they are.
The disaster money would be separated from other agency funds, and could keep money available for logging, thinning and restoration. President Obama and Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson have their own versions of similar proposals.
“If we can stop fire borrowing, we can reinvigorate and strengthen our active management of our public lands that will help to stop this trend of catastrophic fire,” Crapo said.
A competing bill passed the House to end the so-called “fire borrowing,” but includes controversial provisions to reduce environmental reviews.
The new approach to paying for firefighting might have unintended consequences: Less restraint on rising suppression costs.
“This would mean continuous increases in fire-suppression expenditures, which would in all probability make the problem of catastrophic fires worse,” Reason’s Morris wrote.
Will Whelan, The Nature Conservancy of Idaho’s public affairs director, is working to get Crapo’s bill passed. It’s not within our power to stop all fire, particularly megafires. And we wouldn’t want to even if we could.
“Fire plays an important role in maintaining many forest ecosystems,” Whelan said. “But we can make a difference by active forest restoration that reduces the likelihood and the impact of megafires.”