There’s no money to fight fire with fire

A street in Los Alamos, New Mexico after the Cerro Grande Fire. This fire burned 48,000 acres and left over 400 families without homes. Photo from FEMA/Andrea Booher.

In 2000, my husband’s cat made the news. The Cerro Grande Fire had chased his family from their home in Los Alamos, New Mexico but everything happened so fast that they didn’t have time to find their cat. When the cat ambled into the house a few hours later, firefighters caught him and stuffed him in a pillowcase to get him out of harm’s way. Needless to say, he was unhappy with this sudden change in plans and his rage was filmed for the nightly news to add some cheer to the sobering fact that over 400 families in Los Alamos had lost their homes.

We’re starting to change the way we think about wildfire management, and now we need to change the way we fund it. We once thought that fire suppression strategies, which focus on extinguishing fires as quickly as possible, were enough to help us fight these fires, but fire prevention strategies are equally important. Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t have money to spend on fire prevention strategies because it spends the majority of its budget suppressing huge wildfires. For example, the Soberanes Fire, which started in July on the Central California coast, is now estimated to have cost $250 million and is one of the costliest fires in U.S. History, according to Jennifer Jones of the National Interagency Fire Center based out of Boise, Idaho. By the time this fire was 100 percent contained on Oct. 13, it had burned 132,127 acres, roughly four times the size of San Francisco.

A firefighter checks for hot spots by the Soberanes Fire. This fire cost $250 million and is one of the costliest fires in the history of the U.S. Photo from the U.S. Department of Agriculture via Flikr.

Our original wildfire management strategies were put in place after the Great Fire of 1910, according to Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at UC Berkeley. This fire rampaged across Idaho, Montana, and eastern Washington; killed 86 people; and burned three million acres of land (almost five times the size of Yosemite National Park), according to the Forest Service. The severity of this fire was enough to convince the relatively new Forest Service to focus a portion of its budget on wildfire suppression techniques, says Stephens.

The smoke plume from the recent Loma Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. This fire burned 4,474 acres in two weeks before it was contained on Oct. 12. Photo from Sarah McQuate.

The Forest Service receives an annual budget from Congress to fund its projects, which include fire suppression. In general, the fire suppression budget pays for the people fighting the fire, air support, food, supplies and logistics, according to Stephens. Funding for fire suppression is now 56 percent of the budget, compared to 16 percent in 1995, and in all but two years since 2002, the Forest Service has even exceeded these funds. In the case of the Soberanes Fire, $220 million went to camp support, equipment, and personnel, according to the Forest Service.

At more than 130,000 acres, the Soberanes Fire was extraordinarily large. The Forest Service manages to contain 98 percent of wildfires before they reach 300 acres in size, according to a recent paper in Science. The other two percent of wildfires escape containment and “crown out.” When wildfires “crown out,” the fire reaches the tops, or crowns, of trees and leap from tree top to tree top, destroying large sections of forests as it goes.

These larger fires are in part due to climate change, but fire suppression strategies also lead to more intense wildfires.

“The effort to suppress fires means that when they happen, they become just about unstoppable,” says Malcolm North, who is both a research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service and a professor at UC Davis. “It’s not a question of keeping fire out. Fire is inevitable.”

Fire suppression leads to the accumulation of unburned fuel, or combustible material, in forests, according to North. This fuel can burn at high temperatures which makes for perfect crowning-out conditions.

The Forest Service can use fire prevention strategies to prevent crowning out, according to Stephens. These strategies, which include closely monitored fires such as prescribed and opportunistic burns, reduce the accumulation of fuel in forested areas deemed “at risk” for crowning out. These small fires prevent large fires and forest annihilation.

Budget-buster types of fires, like the Soberanes Fire, are eating up the Forest Service’s budget and hurting its ability to fund fire prevention strategies. The Forest Service is currently the only government agency that is required to fund emergency management entirely out of its own budget, according to Jones. When the Forest Service needs more fire suppression money than what it budgeted for, it has to “borrow” funds from its other programs, which means it has less money for fire prevention.

In an attempt to fix this situation, the Forest Service proposed the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act to Congress last year. This act would allow the Forest Service to ask for help for their most expensive fires, similarly to how the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) pays for emergencies related to hurricanes and other natural disasters. While this bill has strong bipartisan support in the House, it still has not passed. Maybe everyone is too busy preparing for the election this fall.

We have to change funding for the Forest Service. Everyone acknowledges that fire prevention strategies help prevent giant fires like the Soberanes Fire but nothing is happening. October is California’s worst month for wildfires and unless things start to change for the Forest Service, we’re going to continue to see these large fires in the future. It’s more pertinent than ever to take care of high risk areas before it’s too late.


(This post first appeared on the PLOS Ecology Community blog on Oct. 31.)

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