As the Northern Rockies prepares to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Big Blowup, the fire season is looking pretty tame.
It’s the second year in a row that the region, which has been burned hard and often since 1988, had a relatively easy year. That has allowed firefighters to let fires burn more comfortably when they were helping to reduce fuels and restore the ecological integrity of the forests.
This week, Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology, an organization that has pushed for a shift in fire policy from suppression to letting more fires burn has released a report by its executive director, Timothy Ingalsbee, "Getting Burned: A Taxpayer's Guide to Wildfire Suppression Costs," which lays out the economic case for reduced suppression in the backcountry in the face of larger fires and increasingly costly and long fire seasons.
You may not agree with his conclusions, but the report is filled with good data about what is going on in our forests both near our homes and out in the wilderness. Most of all, by making the economic argument, he challenges people who want to reduce government spending or reduce the federal government’s role in our lives to offer alternatives that meet their agenda and cost taxpayers less.
For instance, Ingalsbee says that large fires account for less than 2% of all wildfires but consume 94% of total suppression costs. Even though we have dramatically increased funding, resources, and personnel for fire suppression, the number of burned acres continues to increase.
There is some consensus among the firefighting community on a few things. There is excess fuels accumulations in our forests due to the full suppression policies put in place in the wake of the 1910 fires. Hundreds of thousands of homes and communities have been built across the West in and up against these flammable forests. And finally, global warming fueled primarily by human-caused fossil fuel burning, has increased the size and frequency of fires.
The scope of the Russian fires this year demonstrates the global nature of this challenge as have fires across Europe, and in other years in Australia.
In addition is letting more fires burn, Ingalsbee wants to return firefighting to federal agencies and help cut the cost by reducing the number of private contractors in the firefighting business. He also attacks cost-sharing agreement where the federal government pays part of the cost for fighting fires on state lands no matter how the state responds. If the state allowed unbridled development into its forestlands it still gets the same money as a state that limits this growth, which inherently increases the costs of suppression.
Most of all, fire managers react to the demands of the public and politicians. When fire is burning and smoke is filling the air people are unhappy.
That makes politicians from Nancy Pelosi to Butch Otter call for spending more money, fighting more fires and getting the federal government more involved, not less.
“There is far more pressure placed on managers to prevent wildfire damage than to reduce suppression costs, consequently, there is a general lack of accountability for
suppression spending, and numerous reports and recommendations for containing suppression costs have largely been ignored,” Ingalsbee said.
If that sounds familiar it is because it was largely the same conclusion as a series in the Idaho Statesman in 2008, Fire Wise? The Paradox of Fire Policy.
Two years later, while the awareness has improved, the trend hasn’t.