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U.S. to budget for fighting wildfire as a natural disaster — one recurring every year

REUTERS/Sandy Huffaker
Budgets for many Forest Service programs, from recreation to habitat restoration, are routinely raided.

This may be the last year that fighting wildland fire sucks a crippling share of oxygen out of  other vital programs in the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and other federal agencies responsible for battling a worsening trend toward larger and hotter fires, especially across the American West.

Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, is busily promoting an Obama administration proposal for next fiscal year and beyond to let the agencies charge the costs of fighting each year's worst 1 percent of fires directly against the federal disaster funds available for relief from, say, hurricane or tornado damage.

A rough but oft-quoted estimate is that these one-percenters might require outlays of $412 million per year in the currently prevailing pattern of wildfire. That's slightly to the low side of what the Forest Service alone has had to take from other accounts to cover its firefighting costs in the past two fiscal years, Vilsack wrote recently in an op-ed for the Montana Standard:

In fiscal year 2012 and fiscal year 2013, the Forest Service had to transfer $440 million and $505 million respectively from other accounts to pay for fire suppression. Over the last 12 years, a total of $3.2 billion was shifted from other programs that accomplish important forest health objectives.

When that happens, we are forced to engage in what’s known as “fire transfer,” where funding for fire suppression is taken away from critical forest management activities — an equally essential part of our efforts to protect our nation’s forests, our families and our communities.

Perverse effect of present funding

Raiding the fire-prevention programs to pay for fire suppression is merely the most perverse consequence of a wildland firefighting burden that has grown, Vilsack acknowledged, from 13 percent of the Forest Service budget 10 years ago to over 40 percent today.

Budgets for many other Forest Service programs, from recreation to habitat restoration, are also routinely raided. And while the National Park Service has a smaller responsibility, it, too, has had to transfer funds from other programs to the fire lines, some $421.6 million over the last 10 years, according to a recent analysis by the Center for American Progress.

There is no longer any question that the worsening patterns of wildland fire are being driven heavily by climate regimes shifting to hotter, drier conditions, and so treating the very worst places as a sort of annually recurring natural disaster makes some sense philosophically as well as financially. And the president's proposal is said to have bipartisan support; its Senate authors are Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and Idaho Republican Mike Crapo.

There remains a big question, however, about how vigorously the Forest Service will now ramp up its programs of preventively treating lands at high risk of severe wildfire. Also, a huge question of how much can actually be done to reverse the century-long accumulation of brush and overgrowth caused by past policies suppressing any and all fires.

And then there's the biggest question of all:  Will growing taxpayer awareness of the shared fiscal burden imposed by wildfire lead to some changes in policies and practices that continue to encourage unwise residential development in the fire zone?

Lessons from California

One who thinks not is Mike Davis, the MacArthur fellow and self-described "Marxist/environmentalist" scholar known for such books as "Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster." Interviewed recently at socialistworkers.org, he offered these thoughts on "What the California wildfires should teach us":

... The situation with the most recent Southern California fires was extraordinary—you had 23 Marine helicopters, dozens of other firefighting aircraft, fire departments from all over the state, federal fire agencies. The message being sent to the people who live in their McMansions in the midst of the chaparral or the housing developments recently inserted into the back country is: Don't worry, you can count on us.

The wildfires in Southern California are some of the most destructive in the state's history—particularly the ones in San Diego County in the last decade, where several thousand homes were destroyed. But the message being sent is to keep building, because we can beat fire.

This is not only paradoxical, it verges on insanity.  If I were to take you for a drive, for instance, to many of the areas that burned down in 2003 and 2007, not only would you see every structure rebuilt, but usually rebuilt larger in scale. ...

Instead of prompting debates about controlling growth, particularly the developments with these very large-scale homes in vulnerable areas, each fire deepens the conviction that people can be safe, and development can continue.

That conviction ultimately rests on the fact that fire insurance is cross-subsidized —that people who live in these homes in the newly developed areas are effectively subsidized by other people who buy fire insurance for homes in areas that have no wildfire risk.

I don't think you have to be either a Marxist or an environmentalist to see both the fundamental truth in Davis' subsidy analysis and the insanity in its implications.

A less polemical view

But if there's a little too much tenor of class warfare for you in Davis' comments, consider this recent commentary in the Denver Post from Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics, whose solid research on these questions I've discussed previously (links at end):

The two most common approaches to reduce wildfire-related dangers and costs show that we still have a long way to go.  One attempt, like the popular Firewise program, is voluntary landowner education to increase the survivability of homes by clearing brush and nearby trees, creating defensible space, and using nonflammable building materials.

This is the right approach on land already developed; yet only 2 percent of at-risk communities have adopted this tactic. Moreover, a recent study by Headwaters Economics found no relationship between Firewise participation and reduced wildfire suppression cost.

Another option is to reduce fuel loads in the forest. The Forest Service estimates about 230 million acres need treatment, but each year less than 3 million acres are thinned through logging or prescribed burning.

Now is the time to add a third idea that would improve local land-use planning and bring a level of cost accountability to the local governments that permit new homes and subdivisions. ...  

First, bill local governments for their share of the firefighting costs to create a strong incentive for better planning. Second, provide land-use planning help, but performance-based, allocated in proportion to the community’s ability to reduce wildfire risks.  

These ideas do not mean a halt to homebuilding. Rather, they point to smarter development. For instance, we can reward homebuilders with higher density development rights if they cluster homes away from danger, behind a firebreak and close to a water source.

A staffing problem, too

And lest we forget that there's more to fighting fire than just finding the dough to pay for it, I'll note a  piece last week in Homeland Security Today, an online publication of "insight and analysis for government decision makers" (everybody's writing about wildfire these days).

Covering a hearing in the House on management of firefighting resources, editor-in-chief Anthony Kimery focused on a looming shortage of smoke-jumping personnel and cited statistics showing that 64 percent of essential fire command personnel are up for retirement this year, the number growing to 86 percent by 2019.

Moreover, he quotes William Dougan, president of their union, as observing that even younger "firefighters looking to advance their careers face a critical barrier. Current regulations do not credit their service, regardless of how long, as qualifying for acquiring ‘competitive status.’ Because of this barrier to career advancement, many skilled firefighters eventually leave, taking their valuable skills with them.”

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