On the brink of the deadliest fire season in decades, federal agencies cut the ranks of their wildlands firefighters by 600, thanks to the automatic spending cuts contained in the “sequester” that grew out of the budget standoff in Congress.
What’s perhaps worse, the Forest Service has for years been cutting money for forest management and restoration to feed into the maw of its $3-billion fire-fighting budget, which now consumes half of its budget. In the upcoming year, the Forest Service will divert another $62 million from other uses to feed into the firefighting budget.
The death of 19 Prescott hotshot firefighters in the 8,400-acre Yarnell Hill blaze this season has cast a searing light on a problem decades in the making.
The firefighting budget for the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management has risen from less than $1 billion annually prior to 1997 to more than $3 billion annually currently. Meanwhile, the budget for treatments to prevent catastrophic fires has risen from under $100 million in 1999 to $495 million in Fiscal 2012, according to a recent report on Wildfire Protection by the Congressional Research Service (CRS).
The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulations will hold a hearing this Thursday in the wake of the deaths the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew. The only survivor was the lookout posted on a nearby hill. He warned the crew of the abrupt change in fire behavior, but they didn’t have time to escape.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R, Prescott), who serves on the committee and represents Rim Country, said the committee would seek to “pursue proactive forest management policies, which will minimize catastrophic wildfires in the future, while protecting our communities and restoring the environment.”
Congressman Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Republican and member of the committee, said, “For years federal bureaucrats, heavily influenced by environmentalists, have failed to actively manage our national forests, which can lead to out-of-control wildfires and threaten life and property in our western states.”
Subcommittee Chairman Rob Bishop of Utah said, “Whether manmade or caused by Mother Nature, catastrophic wildfires are exacerbated by the overabundance of fuel. Dried, dead or decaying trees and other fuels have been a scourge for many western states.”
The size and intensity of wildfires in the West have increased dramatically in recent years, driven by an epic drought and an enormous buildup of fuels after a century of grazing, logging and fire suppression. For instance, the tinder-dry chaparral of manzanita and scrub oak surrounding Yarnell is adapted to frequent, low-intensity fires — but hadn’t seen a blaze in 40 years, according to news reports.
The soaring cost of fighting the fires only hints at the damage done. A report by the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition concluded the indirect and long-term effects of wildfires cost somewhere between two and 30 times as much as the amount spent fighting the blaze.
For instance, the 462,614-acre Rodeo Chediski Fire in 2002 cost about $50 million to fight and destroyed about $123 million worth of homes and property. Forest rehabilitation over the next three years cost another $139 million. The value of the jobs lost totaled about $8.1 million, with a sharp drop in tourism and other activities that persisted for years after the fire. All told, the Rodeo-Chediski delivered a $308 million hit, only 15 percent of it in direct firefighting costs. The fire burned mostly on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, but consumed 500 structures and forced 30,000 to flee their homes.
That report concluded even costly prevention activities like mechanical thinning and controlled burns can yield big economic benefits.
However, as the cost of fighting fires has soared, the Forest Service has shifted more and more resources to simply fighting the fires, the report concluded.
Back in 2000, 25 percent of the Forest Service budget went to fighting fires. By 2008, fires consumed 44 percent of the budget. Now, it’s approaching 60 percent. The hazardous fuels reduction program that has helped create buffer zones on the outskirts of most Rim Country communities accounts for only about 14 percent of the budget. Yet one study in the State of Washington concluded the benefits of thinning medium- and high-risk stands exceeded the costs by between $1,000 and $2,000 per acre.
Ironically, the White Mountains Stewardship Program, whose thinning projects saved Alpine and Springerville from the Wallow Fire, has nearly died out for lack of funding. The Forest Service had initially promised the coalition of loggers and mill owners that it would give out contracts to thin 15,000 acres annually with a subsidy of about $800 per acre. However, when the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest ran out of money, it drastically reduced the scope of the project.
The Forest Service has also given a long-term contract to Pioneer Forest Products that calls for thinning about 50,000 acres a year. Pioneer had said it didn’t need a subsidy since it could use the small trees for bio-fuel and wood products. But the Forest Service this year gave Pioneer another 18 months to cut the first 1,000 acres among a flurry of concerns about whether Pioneer has a viable business plan or any money to build the small-wood mills it would need.
The Congressional Research Service Report documented the sharp shift in federal resources toward firefighting rather than restoration and prevention, despite repeated initiatives intended to restore millions of acres of forest to health —including major efforts by both President Bill Clinton and President George Bush.
Instead, each year the problem grows more dangerous — as a decade-long drought reasserts itself.
The Forest Service’s Coarse-Scale Assessment concluded that 51 million acres are at high risk of “significant” ecological damage and another 80 million at “moderate” risk. Throw in land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and that total land at high and moderate risk rises to 421 million acres, the CRS report concluded.
The danger has increased dramatically also as a result of the rapid increase in the number of houses built in the midst of the forest. Research has shown that cleared buffer zones and fire-adapted building codes can dramatically reduce the risk to homes from wildfires. One study in California found that 90 percent of homes built to such a fire-resistant code survived major brush fires in 1961 and 1990. Such homes have roofs made of fire-resistant materials like concrete tiles, don’t have untreated wood decks and eaves, but do have at least 33 feet around the house cleared of brush and trees.
U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell in recent congressional testimony centered on agency’s $4.9 billion 2014 budget said he wanted to shift about $62 million from other programs to bolster the firefighting total. Nonetheless, he said the Forest Service last year treated 3.7 million acres and increased the wood harvested by 20 percent, to 3 billion boardfeet.
The CRS report traced evolution of current dangerous conditions, although the report noted that wildfires posed a danger to the first settlers as well.
For decades, the Forest Service managed the forest mostly to benefit ranchers, miners and loggers, thereby transforming the forests — especially the fire- and drought-adapted ponderosa pine forests of Northern Arizona.
Initially, the Forest Service allowed loggers to take the big, profitable trees and leave behind the branches and scrap. That led to the worst wildfire in U.S. history in Peshtigo, Wis., which in 1871 burned four million acres and killed 1,500 people. Clear-cutting and slash piles fueled massive wildfires followed by devastating floods.
After a series of giant fires killed firefighters and consumed millions of acres in the early 1900s, the Forest Service adopted an aggressive strategy to control forest fires. The effort had dramatic results for decades. Between 1935 and 1986, fires burned an average of 600,000 acres of Forest Service land annually, about half the average of the 1910s, according to the CRS report.
The period of megafires coincided with a megadrought that took hold in the 1890-1920 period. During those years, half of the cattle in Arizona died of thirst and hunger.
The combination of aggressive fire suppression and the return of normal rainfall sharply reduced wildfires for most of the rest of the 20th century. In the 1960s, the annual average acres burned on Forest Service land dropped to less than 200,000.
However, fuels continued to build up decade after decade. Tree densities rose from about 30-50 per acre in the pre-settlement Arizona forests to about 1,000 per acre at present, with a corresponding increase in downed wood.
The average number of acres burned on all federal lands annually jumped to 7 million in 2000-09, then dropped slightly to 6 million acres in 2010-12. Last year, the total jumped up to 9 million acres.
This year has already set another tragic milestone, with the worst loss of life among firefighters in Arizona history.