Pioneer Fire bill rises as fire-cost reform stalls in Congress

Boise hotshots fighting the Pioneer Fire northeast of Idaho City July 31.
Boise hotshots fighting the Pioneer Fire northeast of Idaho City July 31.

Rain has cooled the flames of Idaho’s Pioneer Fire , which at more than 188,000 acres is the largest fire in the nation.

The fire started west of Idaho City in the backcountry July 18, around the same time the Mile Marker 14 Fire was threatening homes in the Boise Foothills. The Pioneer Fire grew and threatened Lowman and rural homes along the South Fork of the Payette River as well as hamlets like Pioneerville for weeks.

Most of the local criticism of the firefighting effort was the traditional view that firefighters should have been able to corral it before it got big. But while firefighters put out 98 percent of wildfires, the 2 percent that escape account for 30 percent of the costs in forests thick with fuel after a century of fire suppression and because of climate change.

No homes were burned and no lives lost. Thousands of acres of timber burned, smoke filled communities including Boise and Stanley, and roads and forest lands popular for recreation were closed for weeks.

At Pioneer’s peak, 1,800 firefighters fought the fire, along with dozens of engines, airplanes, helicopters and seven different fire management teams.

The cost of the fire exceeded $93 million by Thursday, and with 430 firefighters still on the ground rehabilitating fire lines and completing containment, the cost is certain to exceed $100 million before it is done.

Fire managers work in an extraordinarily challenging setting. The public and political leaders can be unforgiving in their judgments.

Will Whelan, Nature Conservancy of Idaho

Frank Carroll, a retired U.S. Forest Service firefighter and manager who spent years on the Boise National Forest, said the agency could have spent millions less. But now it has a strong incentive in the rare years when it is not short of funds to spend more, because more than half of its employees are locked in as full-time firefighters, with little budget authority to transfer their work to fuels treatment, recreation and other forest work, he said.

“They are doing work authorized for fire suppression because that’s all they can do,” said Carroll.

Wildfire suppression costs have made up an increasing portion of the agency’s overall budget, growing from 16 percent in 1995 to 52 percent in 2015. The Forest Service’s firefighting staff has grown from 5,700 in 1998 to more than 12,000 last year. Meanwhile, nonfirefighting staff has been reduced by 39 percent — from 18,000 employees in 1998 to fewer than 11,000 in 2015.

Fire borrowing

Ralph Rau, the chief of fire management for the Agency’s Northern Region in Missoula, Mont., told a Western Governors’ Association workshop on Sept. 20 that the agency still has flexibility to use fire people in other roles. But like a bipartisan coalition of senators, conservation groups and timber companies, he says Congress needs to address what it calls a fire-borrowing problem.

When the Forest Service exceeds its wildfire suppression budget, it borrows from other funds that pay for fuels management, trail work, wildlife habitat improvement and other duties. That makes it stop efforts to reduce fuels and carry on other tasks.

Congress has been looking at several ways to draw the 30 percent of costs that come from large fires like the Pioneer from disaster funding. Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo and Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden have led the coalition supporting the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which has 21 co-sponsors.

“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.

Competing bills have passed the House, but they include provisions to reduce environmental reviews of logging and thinning programs that today take up to three years to complete.

Chuck Roady, vice president and general manager of F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. in Montana, wants the fire borrowing stopped, but he also wants to limit the lawsuits he says impair active management.

“If we can’t find a compromise on these forest issues then we need to change the legend on our maps showing public land from green to brown,” Roady said at the WGA workshop.

Observers are hoping Congress can find a compromise this year, perhaps in the lame duck session. But even if the agency gets all the money it needs to reduce fuels, especially around communities, the cost of wildfire suppression is expected to rise from an average of about $1 billion a year to $1.8 billion by 2026 due to the size of the fuels backlog and the longer season and hotter temperatures caused by climate change.

Carroll said that even if the fire-borrowing issue is resolved, the agency still has to change its workforce, increasingly dominated by firefighters at the expense of other disciplines for managing resources and people. And Congress needs to change its budget limits by giving the Forest Service the same flexibility the Bureau of Land Management has to fund programs, he said.

Nationally the fire year has been relatively light so far this year, though the California fire season is heating up. Only 4.8 million acres have burned so far, less than half of the 10 million acres that burned in 2015.

That has created the incentive, Carroll said, for managers to find creative ways for fire staff to do management work under the authority of fire suppression, including in the Pioneer Fire.

“There are probably all kinds of other things going on out there, but they can’t say that,” Carroll said.

Change the incentives

Two economists, commissioned by the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., also said the current incentives encourage fire bosses to spend more, not less. They want to change those incentives.

Dean Lueck of the University of Indiana and Jonathan Yoder of Washington State University proposed in their PERC report that the Forest Service could set a fixed cost for firefighting and bank any savings for use in other programs.

There are incentives for (fire incident commanders) to use too many resources since they do not face the full marginal costs of resources. Also, ICs also do not face liability for wasteful or destructive actions, such as backfires that escape and burn homes or valuable timber.

Dean Lueck, economist and co-author of PERC fire report

This might be the year the Forest Service could “bank” the excess dollars Congress has specifically appropriated for fire suppression if its existing authority were expanded. But Yoder acknowledged in an interview there is no political will in Congress to limit suppression dollars.

“Banking relies on the notion there’s going to be budget restraint,” Yoder said.

He suggests the agencies come up with a more useful guide to measuring the impact of fire than just acres burned. But that gets tricky, measuring what assets are going to be protected by one fire strategy or another.

For instance, the buildings in Lowman, which were under a voluntary evacuation order for weeks as the Pioneer Fire burned nearby, are worth around $5.1 million, according to Boise County Assessor Chris Juszczak. Idaho City’s improvements are worth around $23 million dollars.

“Decisions about when and how to suppress wildfires have to take into account important public values that are not easily translated into dollars and put through a cost-benefit analysis,” said Will Whelan, public affairs director for the Nature Conservancy in Idaho. “Land managers need to consider things like public safety, wildlife habitat, fisheries and stream health, the risk of landslides and flooding after the fire, recreation, health of tourism-dependent communities, and air quality.”

Even blaming Congress misses the strong public support for spending on fire suppression, Whelan said. That’s why there needs to be a national discussion that addresses the complexities.

“That dialogue should not prevent Congress from acting right away to fix our broken system of wildfire funding,” Whelan said. “The impact of fire suppression on the agencies’ budget is a problem now.”

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker