As fires rage, feds cut funding on prevention

Yakima Herald -by Nicholas Riccardi And Mead Gruver

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — As the West battles one catastrophic wildfire after another, the federal government is spending less and less on its main program for preventing blazes in the first place.

A combination of government austerity and the ballooning cost of battling the ruinous fires has taken a bite out of federal efforts to remove the dead trees and flammable underbrush that clog Western forests. The U.S. Forest Service says that next year it expects to treat 1 million fewer acres than it did last year.  

In real, inflation-adjusted dollars, the government is spending less on the Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program, run jointly by the Forest Service and the Interior Department, than it did in 2002. And President Barack Obama has proposed a 31 percent cut for the fiscal year that begins in the fall.

“Because the fires have gotten bigger and bigger, we’ve spent more of our money on suppression and less on fuel removal,” Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said. “We’ve gotten behind the 8-ball on this.”

Federal firefighting officials say there is no question the program prevents some fires and makes others less dangerous to homeowners and firefighters alike. But they say they are caught in a bind.

“It’s a wicked public policy question,” said Tom Harbour, the Forest Service’s director of fire and aviation management. “We’ve got to make trade-offs. We’re living in a time of constrained budgets.”

Wildfires have grown in intensity and cost across the nation because of a combination of high temperatures, drought, an infestation of pine-killing beetles, and the rising number of people living close to nature. Since the 1990s, 15 million to 17 million new homes have been built in dangerous fire zones, according to a government report.

The Forest Service says it must clear flammable materials from at least 65 million acres to tamp down the danger. The federal government is the primary landlord in the western United States, with responsibility for maintaining much of the open lands that burn during fire season.

Eight of the nine worst fire seasons on record in the U.S., as measured in acres burned, have occurred since 2000, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

Last year, 9.3 million acres burned, with 51 separate fires of more than 40,000 acres each. Colorado suffered its most destructive season in history as a blaze on the edge of Colorado Springs destroyed 347 homes. That record stood for less than a year: Last week, a wildfire just outside Colorado Springs devastated at least 502 homes and killed two people.

Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia New Mexico, Texas and Utah also have seen fires in the past six years that set records for size or destructiveness.

Meanwhile, the Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program has seen funding go from $421 million in 2002 to $500 million last year. When those numbers are adjusted for inflation, it is actually a slight decrease. This year’s automatic budget cuts have reduced the funding even further to $419 million. The Obama administration is proposing to slash the total to $292 million next year.

That’s frustrated Western lawmakers, who pushed to include an extra $200 million to clear downed trees and other potential fire fuels in the version of the farm bill that passed the Senate earlier this year. But it’s unclear whether the provision will clear the House.

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee earlier this month that putting out fires is consuming an increasing share of his agency’s budget.

In 1991, fighting fires accounted for 13 percent of the Forest Service budget; last year it was 40 percent, Tidwell said. The number of staffers dedicated to firefighting has gone up 110 percent since 1998, while the rest of the staff has shrunk by 35 percent, he said. The agency’s overall budget, in inflation-adjusted dollars, is 10 percent lower than in 2001.

At the hearing, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., blamed the Obama administration’s budget office for not believing in the value of fire prevention.

“This waltz has gone on long enough,” Wyden said.

The government has other programs that lower fire danger, including letting ranchers graze their livestock on grassland and routine forest maintenance. But even those have become victims of the growing cost of fighting fires.

During last year’s tough fire season, the Forest Service overspent its firefighting budget by $440 million. To close the gap, it borrowed from other accounts, including $40 million in brush clearance funds, according to Forest Service documents.

Congress eventually replenished those funds, but by then it was long after the work should have been completed, said Christopher Topik of the Nature Conservancy. He noted that a 2004 congressional report found that borrowing money disrupted critical fire prevention programs.

Last year, the Forest Service treated or restored 4.4 million acres, according to agency records. Next year that is projected to drop to 3.5 million. The number of acres treated for hazardous fuels is projected to fall from 1.8 million last year to 685,000 next year. Harbour said the agency is focusing on heavily populated areas, which are more expensive to treat.

A study for the Interior Department found it is more cost-effective to try to prevent fires than to just extinguish them once they erupt.

In a 2010 blaze in Arizona, for example, researchers found that the fire cost about $135 million. They calculated that every dollar spent on basic prevention, such as trimming dead branches and carting out downed trees, could have saved $10 in firefighting costs.

One of the study’s co-authors, Diane Vosick of Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute, likened the removal of old and easily ignitable trees — whether by prescribed burns or mechanical harvesting — to vaccinating people against a deadly disease.

“We know what to do and the investment up front is much easier than the aftermath, which the poor people of Colorado are dealing with right now,” Vosick said.


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10 thoughts on “As fires rage, feds cut funding on prevention

  1. Gee…maybe if we didn’t waste 7 Billion dollars on useless military vehicles in Afghanistan, we might of had enough money to fund the program.

    But anyways, good idea. I’m glad they are cutting the funding. While they are at it, why don’t they cut funding for medicine, so that when a common disease hits, we won’t be able to fight it. Sounds great. (sarcasm)

    1. Not to mention 3B for Israhell, 1B for drone Pakistan, and $6M before the latest in Syria. And those are just the numbers they tell us about. Meanwhile, Detroit burns, our children have fathers with minimum wage jobs, and we could have paid every mortgage in America with the bank bailout. Who is the enemy?

      1. As always, I encourage and expect those who doubt me to proove me wrong. I do not lie, I do not exaggerate. Those who research will find the truth and will understand liberty and justice for all.

  2. You’d think that as the Indians never developed a decent fire truck there wouldn’t be a tree left standing in North America.The reason fires get out of control is because they’ve been extinguished artificially when they should have been allowed to burn.One could look at it like a government bail-out that simply defers the inevitable.It’s government spending that is ruinous.18

  3. Yeah, & don’t forget Obamastein spending 100 million plus on his little family trip to Africa……that’s important though, I’m sure Sasha is just worn out! Keep up the fight for Freedom & Liberty

  4. Of course the government is spending less and less on prevention of these firest. The are deliberately set in order to drive people back into the cities while the government takes over the national forests … all in the name of Agenda 21.

    . . .

    1. Not to be a smartass but they’ve already taken them over.That’s why they call them national forests.And to reiterate my humble point,that’s why they’re burning down.They’ve been under the auspicies of state control for too long.

  5. We are both the “invasive species”…

    …and the “fire insurance.”

    As long as humans put themselves above the environment, as if the wildland urban interface is our playground where we can live in our picture postcard dream home (with fire insurance), then “we” are the invasive species. When we declared war on fire a hundred years ago and labeled (for the records) fire “evil,” we lost touch with our “purpose” as human beings. As a wildland firefighter ceritified in many areas in wildland fire operations as a “single resource,” it is clear to me that we humans are out of touch with why we are here on this planet. We invade other countries out of selfishness and greed. We invade the forests out of selfishness and greed. We invade other human and animal “spaces” out of selfishness and greed. Like the fuels that have built up in our forests because of prolonged fire suppression, the same insatiable human appetite for more and more, with disregard for the effects, has reached the point of an inevitable catastrophic (economical, social & environmental) collapse.

    We are out of touch with who we are as a cuture. We are out of touch with what we are and why we are. We are more concerned with buying more useless material items while staying in debt, rather than taking responsibility for the well being of everything around us. Those who choose to live in a wildland urban interface to satisfy personal motives need to snap out of DENIAL (a contageous dis-ease that is running rampant throughout this culture) and learn to become “Stewards of the Land.”

    What is your relationship with the Land? What did the land look like before fire suppression became the policy of a corrupt government owned by greedy corporations? What did the land look like before European settlers “invaded” this country?

    Fire was once a natural part of our landscape. Low intensity fire helped maintain balance and order in the forests and kept forests “healthy and biodiverse.” (Many Native Americans understood this principle and, prior to the arrival of European settlers, practiced “prescribed burning” methods that supported the health of themselves AND the health of the forests and animals.) However, that knowledge was lost when the European settlers came to understand “timber” as a valuable commodity and perceived fire as “evil” and actually declared war on it. (Good old Smokey the Bear became the perfect propoganda prop to further their cause.) Unfortunately, without low intensity fire to keep forests healthy and diverse, we now have a catastrohpic problem on our hands. The amount of acummulated “bio mass” needed to be removed from our forests, to help nature recover somewhat, is MASSIVE! Like the Karma that will come to all Americans for, directly or indirectly, invading and destroying other peoples cultures, a similar Karma is now at our doorstep.

    You want fire insurance? Look inside yourself. Learn to connect to your true nature and how that supports and nourishes your environment…the land your home is on. Each and everyone of us has a purpose on this planet, unrelated to the fashionable addictions most Americans have to any and everything that keeps them constantly preoccupied with being busy doing absolutely nothing worthwhile.

    We each need to realign ourselves with our purpose and mission in life; not to serve ourself (always first), but to serve the greater good of all living creatures. Time is growing short on all fronts. Our forests need to be intelligently and carefully “thinned” (leaving all old growth) with mimimum impact on the sensitive ecosystem. Low intensity fire must follow. Therapy for the forests will be therapy for ourselves. They go hand and hand, limb and limb. (Channel the billions of dollars allocated to an illegal war, by a corrupted administration, towards hiring a few million “poor” people to recover our forests. It’s a “win-win” situation.)

    Time to make a stand for something good, anything. Either this makes sense or it doesn’t. The lines are being drawn. Whether you are rich or poor, it does not matter. What does matter is what side you choose to align yourself with?

    A fully functional and dedicated “Steward of the Land,” steeped in principles gleaned from Nature (and not the corrupted corporations), is the only true “fire insurance” there is. Our ability to positively Steward the Land is the “fire insurance” policy that the old growth forest has always expected from us, as a coherent human race. The policy expired over the last hundred years. Time to renew it for the sake of the forest and ourselves?

  6. The view from my house encompasses several hundred thousand acres of mostly federal land, all of it highly flammable. Starting in July 2002 I got to watch for an entire summer while the Biscuit Complex Fire burned nearly 500,000 acres on my horizon. For $147 million dollars in firefighting costs, they were able to pinch the flanks until the first rain in October put the fire out.

    I have been floored at how much money has been poured into this acreage over the last few years cutting brush, thinning trees, piling it, and then burning the piles. The forest is still flammable when they’re done, and will be even more flammable in a few short years. We don’t have enough money or manpower to to make a dent in the problem we have created with 100 years of fire suppression, and cutting funding for this WPA-style make-work is only recognizing this reality.

    Clearcut logging only makes the situation worse by encouraging the growth of brush. High-grade selective logging only makes the problem worse by removing the largest trees, the very ones that have reached a maturity where they can survive a fire. The one thing that controls the problem is regular, low-intensity fire intentionally lit when conditions are exactly right. An experienced old Indian squaw with a fire brand can do a better job of managing fuel load than than all the millions we are spending on these stack-and-burn programs.

    There is a time and a place to fight wildfire, but there is also a time and place to light them. I have long advocated that the currently seasonal work of firefighting be turned into a year-round profession. We could have a healthier landscape for half the budget if they spent half the year doing controlled burns.

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