As the Rim Fire burnt its way into the record books this summer, hundreds of firefighters, as well as fire engines, airplanes, helicopters, and bulldozers, were used to try and bring the blaze under control. Sparked by a hunter’s illegal campfire, the blaze, which crossed into Yosemite National Park, was the third largest in California’s history. Hundreds of square miles were burnt and more than $100 million were spent fighting it.
Photo courtesy Coconino National Forest
Firefighting is an expensive business, and much of that business is going to private companies. Contractors now supply local and national agencies with everything from fire engines to firefighters. The largest employer in this multi-million dollar industry is the United States Forest Service. Over the past three decades, private companies have become a familiar sight on fire lines around the country where green Forest Service trucks are frequently joined by fire engines marked with the logos of private firefighting companies.
US Forest Service Chief, Tom Tidwell, says the use of private contractors makes economic sense for the agency. “They don't work unless there's a fire,” he says. “It's a business risk they have to take, and it provides us with more flexibility.” “The Chief” as he is known in the agency, was in Oakland last year for an event promoting urban forestry where he hinted at a greater role for private firefighting in the future. “As we see more fires there may be more people who get into the business,” he said, Tidwell, however, insisted that this wouldn’t change the agency’s approach to firefighting.
Not everyone is convinced by that assurance. As the private firefighting industry has grown, so too has its influence on politicians and government. Despite, the rapid growth of the industry, there has been little public debate about the role of these companies until now. “Why is fire management on public lands being turned over to profit-seeking corporations?” asks Timothy Ingalsbee, Executive Director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology. “They don't share the same interests as folks with a vision of long-term stewardship.” The main concern people like Ingalsbee share is that private companies are putting profit over the environment.
Fires are an important part of many North American ecosystems. (Read our recent report about the ecological importance of forest fires.) Despite a long history of putting them out, in recent years the Forest Service has acknowledged the need to restore fire to the landscape. In a changing climate, that mission has become increasingly urgent. “I think we’re at a critical juncture” says Niel Lawrence senior attorney with the Natural Resource Defense Council, “Because of the build-up of fuels in forests and because of the drying and increased temperatures because of climate change, forest fires are going to become more common…. if we don’t get fire back in the woods now, as things get warmer and more dry the further build up of fuels in the forests is going to make it not only impossible to protect our communities, but I think it’s going to make it impossible to get fire back in the woods at all.” (Listen to my radio story “The Burning Issue: America’s War on Fire” on Making Contact)
But are private firefighting companies, making it harder to restore fire to the woods?
Debates about the economic and environmental cost of fire suppression have been heating up. Each year the Forest Service spends as much as $100 million a week on firefighting. In 1991, fire suppression accounted for about 13 percent of the agency’s budget, but by 2012 it made up more than 40 percent. Frequently, this hasn’t been enough to cover fire suppression, and in recent years the agency has regularly overspent. After burning through its fire suppression budget this year, the agency announced in August that it was cutting $600 million in other areas of its work, to fund firefighting, leading some to disparagingly refer to it as the “Fire Service”
“There are a variety of things pushing the Forest Service in this direction” says Lawrence, “not least the political pressure that channels public concern over the threats from fire to communities and homes.” Fear of fire also makes it a lot easier for the agency to get funding from Congress, he says. “It would be naive to think that there wasn’t anybody in the agency who saw fire suppression as a meal ticket and more suppression as more meals.”
As the proportion of the agency’s budget spent on fighting fires grows, more of that money has ended up in private pockets. In recent years, private firefighting companies have often accounted for more than 40 percent of the agency’s fire suppression budget.
Much of the money is being spent on air tankers — among the most expensive weapons in the Forest Service’s arsenal. At fires across the US, these planes are used to dump gallons of bright red fire retardant, called “mud” or “slurry drops” by firefighters, to slow the advance of a fire. Airplanes used by the federal agencies are mostly contracted from private companies rather than owned by the government. Supporters of this arrangement say it’s a cheaper option than if the government maintained the planes itself, because it costs tens of millions of dollars to build and operate them. It’s a common argument in support of privatizing government services. There’s even a long-standing public law, known as “The Pressler Law,” which in many cases prohibits government-owned aircraft from working on fires when the job could be done by commercial enterprise.
A senior Forest Service employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me that “the private wild land firefighting lobby wields a lot of clout and in particular the folks that own the air tankers.” The employee, who has several decades experience working for the agency on wildfire issues, said that it was common for companies to contact legislators to ask them “why isn’t this piece of equipment being used?”
Photo courtesy USDA
Lucrative contracts with the Forest Service are hotly contested by firefighting companies. With the agency looking to replace its aging fleet of airplanes, some dating back to the Korean War, interest from contractors has mounted. So too has their influence. According to the government watchdog group, Center for Responsive Politics, several companies have lobbied the Forest Service on the issue of aerial firefighting, including Lockheed Martin. The arms manufacturer built the original C-130 planes used to fly missions on wildfires, and lists “aerial firefighting” as a lobbying issue in its public disclosures. Lockheed Martin did not respond to several requests for an interview.
As the climate changes, firefighting companies are predicting business opportunities will take off. “The fire situation in North America is nothing but getting worse and therefore you need some protective equipment and this tanker is amongst the best,” says Rick Hatton, owner of 10 Tanker LLC, a private firefighting company.
Hatton’s company currently has two planes contracted to the Forest Service. Its planes have reportedly flown over a thousand missions, including more than 30 missions this summer on the Rim Fire. The Forest Service pays about $50,000 a day just to keep the planes ready on stand-by, and another $22,000 for every hour flown. The company is re-fitting a third aircraft, and has plans to acquire one more.
Asked if he thought that the federal government was using aerial firefighting enough, Hatton was clear: “Enough is never enough,” he said. “Obviously as a businessman I would like them to use more types of our airplane and company.”
Given that it takes a large amount of money to get an air tanker business off the ground, it's hardly surprising that many of these companies are lobbying the Forest Service on wildfire issues. Hatton initially insisted his company had never paid a “big ‘L’ lobbying" firm, but 10 Tanker is publicly listed as having paid two lobbying companies in the last five years, most recently the Roosevelt Group. When asked about his relationship with the group, Hatton said: “We never gave them any money.” That surprised Chris Goode, associate manager for the Roosevelt Group, who confirmed that 10 Tanker had paid the firm for consultations. When asked again about payments to the Richmond Group, Hatton changed his earlier statement. “I may be incorrect in saying we never paid them a penny,” he said.
While private companies have a long history of providing airplanes to the Forest Service, the use of private ground crews is a relatively recent development. Oregon is a hotbed for this emerging industry. The Beaver State is home to more than half of all private firefighting resources in the country. Previously, many of those fire suppression companies were also involved in other forestry work, such as clearing undergrowth, or tree planting, but “they are being hauled by the economics into something that is more lucrative” says Stephen Clarke, a private contractor with two decades experience in forestry, mostly with hand crews. That “something” is putting out fires.
Representing this growing industry is the National Wildfire Suppression Association, which claims more than 200 private firefighting companies as members. The association’s executive director Debbie Miley says that the companies she represents are there to “complement” not replace agency resources. Like Chief Tidwell, Miley maintains that private companies can provide better value for money than government contractors. She denies that her industry has pushed for more of a share of the Forest Service budget. “There was no plan, or plot,” she says. “As the budgets have decreased in the Forest Service you have seen an increase in the use of contractors.”
But Clarke believes the increasing number of workers specializing in suppressing fires is a problem. In the past, most firefighters were involved in other aspects of forestry in the off-season and developed a more rounded view of forests, but nowadays “you have less opportunity to think that way,” he says. While this shift in perspective might change the way some firefighters on the frontline tackle a blaze, Clarke says the more significant change is taking place at the political level.
NWSA director Miles says that while the association has political connections they “haven’t sought to use them”. But Clarke, who was on the board of the association for several years, says it’s “naive” to think that the industry isn’t promoting itself. For many years the association hired a "government relations" consultant, Chuck Burley, who had previously worked for the Forest Service and had also been an Oregon state legislator. “Any industry association is there to try and make their industry stronger” Clarke says, “the more politically connected, and politically astute business owners are politically involved and they make their needs known.”
NWSA president Rick Dice, readily agrees that he advocates for the business. “I lobby, if you want to call it that; I'm promoting the private industry,” says the former Army Staff Sergeant who runs his own forestry company, PatRick Corporation out of Redmond, Oregon. Like many businesses, the private firefighting industry actively courts politicians and Dice says there are “a lot of legislators who support the idea of using contractors to fulfill [firefighting] needs.”
Among those legislators is Congressman Greg Walden. Walden represents Oregon’s second district and is also chair of the influential Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. Dice, who counts himself as a Walden supporter, says his association keeps the Congressman “informed of pretty much everything that's going on in our industry.” Earlier this year, Walden wrote to the Forest Service to advocate for private fire contractors. He wrote “I hope you are taking greater advantage of these private businesses’ services both for initial and extended attack operations.” Dice has donated thousands of dollars to Walden’s campaign fund and when Walden launched his re-election campaign in 2006, he did so at PatRick headquarters, with Rick Dice standing at his side.
Walden isn't the only elected representative to have advocated for increased use of private firefighting companies. Politicians from both of the two main parties have spoken in favor of using contractors. Clearly, whether through the use of paid lobbyists, informal connections, or industry associations, the private firefighting industry is making itself heard at all levels of government. And for people like Timothy Ingalsbee, this is deeply troubling.
The industry has an economic stake “in perpetuating firefighting even in cases where it might be far cheaper for taxpayers, less risky for firefighters, and more ecologically beneficial for land to let fires burn more,” he says.
A change in the weather, along with the spread of the fire into rocky terrain, where there is less to burn, ultimately helped slow California's Rim Fire, but for now, the influence of the private firefighting industry continues to spread.