Fire Fighting wastes money

The article below has many important points from the Antiplanner that I believe are quite accurate.

The FS spends almost a thousand dollars per acre trying to control fires. This is due to the absolutely insane response of the agency to fire.

First, most fires self extinguish without any control, yet we waste money jumping on these fires when any reasonable examination would suggest they will not pose a threat to property or life. Monitoring is all that is needed.

Second, by contrast, under certain conditions, which includes high temps, low humidity, favorable terrain and high winds, some fires cannot be controlled. And this is relatively easy to predict as well–but we dump millions on these fires in a vain effort to control them. It is almost as if it is an affront to humans that Nature would create fires that we can’t control. So we will spend outlandish amounts of money trying to subdue these blazes but we might as well be pouring dollar bills on the flames for all the good it will do–until the weather conditions for a blaze changes.

Of course ,our fire fighting efforts ignores the fact that wildfires are creative and rejuvenating forces critical to forest health.

The solution is not to give more money for fire fighting–it will just be wasted on useless attempts to control fires. By far the best solution is to zone people from building in fire plains and to create defensible spaces around homes.

The Antiplanner

Dedicated to the sunset of government planning

Fire Budgets and Climate

August 17, 2015

It’s fire season again, which means we are once again treated to stories about how the Forest Service is running out of money and about how it all must be due to climate change. Both of these claims overlook fundamental points about fire policy and firefighting.

The Forest Service frets that rapidly rising firefighting costs are hurting the budgets of other Forest Service programs. However, as the Antiplanner has pointed out before, Forest Service firefighting costs have risen rapidly mainly because they can: the agency has a virtual blank check to spend on fire. As a result, the agency spends far more fighting fires than Department of the Interior agencies, which have never had a blank check.

For example, as of yesterday, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had spent $1.6 million controlling the 55,000-acre County Line 2 fire on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon, while the Bureau of Land Management had spent $2.5 million controlling the 44,000-acre Bendire fire on its Vale District. Meanwhile, the Forest Service had spent $5.5 million on the 515-acre Baldy Fire on the Colville National Forest; $5.9 million on the 4,800-acre National Creek fire on the Rogue River National Forest; and $7.1 million on the 2,600-acre Phillips Creek fire on the Umatilla National Forest. These are selected examples, but on average, the Forest Service spends more than five times as much per acre than the Interior agencies.

We don’t yet have 2015 data, but for the past several years the Forest Service has spent about $4 on fire suppression for every dollar spent by the Department of the Interior even though it had fewer acres burn. As a result, over the past five years, it has spent an average of $914 per acre vs. $171 per acre spent by the Interior department.

To deal with rising fire suppression costs, Congress is continually thinking up schemes to give the Forest Service more money. That’s like trying to control a fire by pouring gasoline on it. The problem is not a shortage of funds, but too much money giving Forest Service firefighters no incentive to control costs. Costs will continue to rise until Congress figures this out and fixes the problem, possibly by turning firefighting over to the states and paying the states the same fixed annual amounts per acre that private forest land owners pay.

comparison of firefighting costs with acres burned shows that there is little correlation: no matter how many acres burn, firefighting agencies (led by the Forest Service) spend about $1.5 billion to $1.9 billion per year. If this is increasing, it is not due to the severity of the fires but to loose spending by Congress.

The claims that growing wildfires are due to human-caused climate change are equally questionable. They are based on a recent study that compares fire trends since 1979. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the number of large fires per year has grown and the fire season has lengthened.

Despite all the concern over the drought, these claims aren’t borne out by the 2015 fire season. It is true that, as of August 14,more acres have burned this year than any year in the previous decade. What those numbers don’t show, however, is that 5.1 million of the 6.8 million acres burned as of yesterday were in Alaska.

One reason Alaska fires are so big is because no one spends much effort trying to control them. For example, the BLM spent a mere $2.8 million on fires that covered more than 400,000 acres near Ruby, Alaska.

Outside of Alaska, fires in the arid West are nowhere near record levels and may even be below average. As of yesterday, 173,000 acres had burned in the Southwest, compared with 2.0 million acres as of the same date in 2011 and 460,000 in 2008. About 350,000 acres in California had burned as of yesterday, compared with 1.2 million in 2008. About 220,000 acres had burned in the Pacific Northwest compared with more than 1.1 million in 2012.

Any fire study that only looks back as far as 1979 ignores huge fires that resulted from major droughts in earlier decades. The 1970s were one of the wettest decades on record, with an average of just 3 million acres a year burned. By comparison, there were 9 million acres of annual fires in the 1950s; 23 million in the 1940s; and 39 million in the 1930s. While there are some problems with data from those early decades, they are valid enough to show that recent changes in droughts and fires are due to cyclical variations in climate, not to human-caused warming.

Any look at fire data since 2000 must also take into account a major change in firefighting tactics. Before 2000, the Forest Service and other agencies put firefighters to work at fire edges to contain fires. Too many firefighters died, so now they start huge backfires thousands of feet, and perhaps miles, away from the wildfire fronts. As a result, fires are larger today, but only because a third or more of the acres burned were actually lit by firefighters.

Although it is eight years old, the Antiplanner’s policy paper on wildfire is still valid today. The problem is not climate change and the solution is not to give firefighters more money. Instead, the problem is too much money and the solution is to treat the land near homes and other structures to make them defensible and then focus fire suppression efforts on nearby public lands making on making sure those fires don’t cross over onto private land.






  1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    George Wuerthner wrote this just in time because as this “terrible” “very worst” (sarcasm) fire season “explodes” there will be many plans to throw money and machinery into the deep forest so to “protect” the towns.

    Here is an example today from WyoFile, Wyoming’s most respected source of journalism expertise.

  2. Garry Rogers Avatar

    Fires are not beneficial in lower woodlands and shrublands which cover much more land area than forests. Ecosystems could recover from fires in the valleys before we introduced cheatgrass and other fine-fuel aliens, but the return interval has become too short. Fighting fires fueled by cheatgrass and other alien annuals is even more futile and wasteful than fighting them in the forests. Preventing them and preventing the spread of aliens are far better uses of public funds.

  3. Scott MacButch Avatar
    Scott MacButch

    While I agree with much that George wrote, his statement that, “This is due to the absolutely insane response of the agency to fire…most fires self extinguish without control…..monitoring is all that is needed”.

    He seems a bit dramatic and to be fair, monitoring is exactly what is happening right now by the Forest Service in regard to the Middle Fork of the Salmon Complex fires.

    If you go to the latest advisory on the Middle Fork of the Salmon fires, you will find this in the incident report:
    “Middle Fork Complex: Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. The Waterfall, Stoddard, Roaring, Harbor, and Alpine Fires are lightning caused fires and will be permitted to play, as nearly as possible, their natural ecological roles with the wilderness.”

    1. bret Avatar

      3 firefighters killed, 4 hurt battling wildfire near Twisp WA.

      1. bret Avatar

        Chelan & Okanogan Complex Fires Fly Through

  4. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    I see the LA Times is one of the few newspapers that has picked up on George’s point that the inclusion of burned acreage in Alaska greatly distorts the image of how much land has burned this summer in the Western United States.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

George Wuerthner