Mission Impossible

Ecologists agree that there is no way to win the War Against Wildfire. So why is the Forest Service spending more than ever on fire suppression?


photo of a forest fire; silhouette of a firefighter in foregroundKaren Wattenmaker

On June 21, 2008, a lightning storm ignited a pair of wildfires in California’s Los Padres National Forest, the rugged terrain of pine valleys and chaparral hillsides that frames the picturesque Big Sur coast. Within days, some 600 firefighters had converged on the area to try to contain the fires and keep them away from the hotels, cafés, and cottages that form the region’s bustling tourism industry. Not far behind the firefighters were members of the media, ready to report on the first major fires of the summer season, a ritual that in the arid West has become a kind of annual apocalypse.

As the reporters filed their stories, their descriptions took on the war-inflected language that is the default vocabulary among professional firefighters. Fire crews “dug in,” and, as the conflagration spread, “bulked up their defenses” and “reinforced their lines.” For a few days, a “stalemate” persisted. Then, when the weather shifted, the firefighters “surrounded” the fire in an “assault” as they “moved in heavy equipment and more personnel.” The news from Big Sur that week could have been mistaken for a dispatch from Iraq.

For nearly a century – since the US Forest Service committed to extinguishing any fires occurring on public lands – wildfire fighting has been viewed as the moral equivalent of war. But according to some forest ecologists, former firefighters, and policy makers, this way of thinking about fire is a grave mistake.

“It’s counterproductive,” says Stephen Pyne, a fire historian at Arizona State University. “It’s not a war. It’s a bad metaphor. You’re not engaged in a heroic fight. You are destroying the thing you are supposed to be protecting.”

For Pyne and many others who study wildfires, the conventional understanding of firefighting has led us to the misguided conclusion that this is a struggle we can win. In much of the West, fire is an ordinary part of the landscape, a feature as essential to many ecosystems as rivers and grasses. Periodic fires are nothing more than regular disturbances; it is us who have made them into disasters.

In doing so, we have also created an emerging public policy catastrophe. The federal government is spending more money than ever before on wildfire suppression. In 1970, the US Forest Service (USFS) spent about 15 percent of its budget on wildfire suppression; today, that cost has risen to 45 percent. In 2005, the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior spent close to $3 billion on fighting fires, up from $924 million 10 years earlier. And that figure does not include the resources expended by the states. In 2007, California spent $896 million on wildfires.

“In virtually every other arena of government spending, we have budgets,” says Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. “Except when it comes to wars. Because any amount of money is acceptable to win a war. The problem with the war on fire is that we don’t know what victory looks like.”

The notion that we can fight – much less win – a war against fire betrays a profound disconnection from nature. It makes about as much sense as battling a hurricane, challenging a tornado, or struggling against an earthquake. Rather than fight those indomitable forces, we prepare for them. So should it be with wildfires. The best way to protect homes and human lives from fire is not to struggle, but to make peace with it. As with so many other environmental issues, the key challenge is adapting to natural systems, an act of ecological humility to which we are unaccustomed.

photo of a flowery meadow, dominated by burned dead treesBigstockphoto.comMany ecosystems in the West are accustomed to fire. If left undisturbed,
vegetation will regenerate in a few years.

“As long as we have wild lands, we are going to have wildfires,” says Tim Ingalsbee, a former firefighter and now head of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology. “Fire is an essential and inevitable process. Fire is a destructive force when it meets homes, but it’s a rejuvenating force when it meets forests. The sooner we prepare our homes and communities to live with fire, the sooner we can restore ecosystems by working with fire.”

‘Forests Are Dynamic’

In describing fire’s effects on the landscape, journalists often talk about acres “consumed,” or, in a particularly clumsy description, “destroyed.” Forest ecologists know better.

In the mixed conifer forests of the West, fire is necessary for the creation of diverse, healthy ecosystems. Many tree species have a thick bark that makes them resistant to small fires. A few animals – like the black-backed woodpecker —live only in post-burn areas, while others – such as the spotted owl – thrive after fire as it becomes easier to hunt prey. Grasslands and chaparral are also accustomed to regular fires. The greasewood shrub, a common plant in chaparral ecosystems, requires fire for its seeds to germinate.

“We are still mired in this mode – which has been completely scientifically refuted – that burned areas have no ecological benefit,” says Chad Hanson, an attorney and forest ecologist. “But the public and policy makers have not caught up with the scientific community, which believes there used to be a lot more mixed and even high severity fires.”

To illustrate his point, Hanson took me on a tour of a post-burn site outside the gold rush town of Auburn in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Hanson co-directs the John Muir Project, an Earth Island Institute-sponsored effort that has monitored US Forest Service logging projects since 1996 to ensure they conform to the government’s own guidelines on tree removal. When Hanson and his wife, lawyer Rachel Fazio, uncover a proposed timber sale that violates government rules, they file suit to prevent the logging. Last October, a case co-initiated by the John Muir Project went to the US Supreme Court, which is now deciding how much ability the public should have to challenge government actions.

Hanson, who combines a schoolboy’s enthusiasm with an attorney’s attention to minutiae, explained all of this to me as he tromped down an alpine trail to show me the effects of the Star Fire, a 2001 blaze that covered some 17,000 acres. We pass through several stands of trees that experienced a mixed severity burn, places where some of the trees succumbed to the heat while others survived. As we climb a ridge, we enter an area that fire ecologists would describe as a high severity burn: More than 90 percent of the trees are dead.

With the pine needle canopy gone, the scene is at first unsettlingly stark. The bases of the trees are charred black. Higher up the trunk, the bark has peeled away to reveal the pale interior of the tree, as white as a tombstone. It’s a cemetery landscape, with a hushed, sepulchered beauty. But underfoot, life returns. The ground is covered with white thorn ceanothus and green leaf manzanita. Young trees – some ankle high, others reaching Hanson’s waist – sprout in miniature groves, their blue-green needles bright in the sun. Up in a tree, a black-backed woodpecker rattles away.

“If a fire is in a remote area where wildfire is natural, by all means let it burn,” Hanson says. “In the conifer forests of the West, you need more fire in the system. … There’s no static ideal. Forests are dynamic.”

Among forest ecologists, this argument is uncontroversial. But the US Forest Service, which manages 193 million acres, has often had another idea. Beginning with the “Big Blowup” of 1910 – which burned some three million acres of Montana and Idaho in less than three days and killed dozens of people – the Forest Service committed itself to suppressing fires wherever they occurred. By the 1970s, Smokey the Bear and his signature slogan, “Only YOU Can Prevent Forest Fires,” had become one of the most widely recognized icons in America. But then government foresters began to rethink the role of fire in the landscape. First the US Park Service and then the USFS shifted their formal stances toward fires. In 1995 – after an especially harsh fire season in which 34 firefighters died – the Forest Service revised its fire policy and acknowledged that “wildland fire, as a critical natural process, must be reintroduced into the ecosystem.”

“This is not new, the philosophical argument is not new,” says fire historian Pyne. “The question of whether we let fire out or put it back is over. The question should be, why don’t we have more to show for it?”

The Forest Service’s official policy may allow for more wildfires to occur naturally, but the agency’s actions tell another story. The Forest Service still tries to put out nearly every fire that starts in the wild. Out of the 9.8 million acres that caught fire in 2007, only about 430,000 acres burned without suppression – or roughly five percent. Despite the scientific agreement that this is not a battle worth waging, the war against fire continues.

Money to Burn

If scientists concur that more fires should be allowed to burn unchecked, they why does the government persist in going to such great lengths to extinguish them? According to longtime observers of the Forest Service, the answer is pork-barrel politics. In many rural areas, firefighting has become big business, and so there is an economic incentive to maintain an aggressive fire suppression stance.

“Firefighting is a very popular way to spend taxpayer dollars in areas of the country that don’t have very many other options for government expenditures,” says Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. “What I call the Firefighting-Industrial Complex is an important political and economic engine in the rural West.”

“There is just no limit, no incentive for fiscal constraint,” former firefighter Ingalsbee says. “It’s a blank check authorized by Congress. I think it’s analogous to the war in Iraq. Militarize the issue and you get endless fiscal support.”

Just as in Iraq, wildland firefighting has come to rely heavily on independent contractors, many of whose services cost more than what the government would pay federal crews to do the same job. A Los Angeles Times investigation of the 2007 Zaca fire near Santa Barbara uncovered a long list of expenditures to keep fire crews in the field. Sleeping trailers paid for by the Forest Service cost $1,982 per day. The laundry service billed $400 an hour. The catering cost for the 3,100 firefighters ran close to $5 million. Equipment was particularly expensive: Contractors charged $2,461 a day for bulldozers to clear fire lines, and $1,671 a day for water trucks. The total bill for the Zaca fire was $140 million.

Among the most glaring costs are the fees paid to helicopter and airplane pilots to splash water or fire retardant onto the blaze. It can cost as much as $14,000 a day to keep an air tanker on call, and up to $4,200 an hour to put it up in the sky. Helicopters are even pricier – $32,000 a day to maintain on standby and $6,300 per hour of flight time. These fees can seem especially wasteful given that many professional firefighters say that aerial drops are of limited use. “The public doesn’t realize that to lather down a slope with fire retardant is ineffective,” Ingalsbee says. “It slows down but doesn’t stop a fire.”

But the helicopter flyovers persist, if for no other reason than people have come to expect them as the telegenic proof that something is being done. Firefighters, cynical about the spectacle, call them “CNN Drops.”

Government officials defend the expenditures as necessary to protect the increasing number of homes located within fire-prone ecosystems.

“There are two problems with just letting fires burn, which is not a good strategy,” says Mark Rey, an undersecretary at the Department of Agriculture, which runs the USFS. “In areas where you have built up heavy fuel loads, the fires won’t be natural fires. They will have a hotter, more intense burn that does not replicate the fires we had in previous centuries. Also, you have economic resources – homes, communities – in the way of those fires.… One thing I have noticed about Forest Service critics is that we spend much of January listening to people complain about how much we spend, and we spend June, July, and August listening to people complain that we aren’t spending enough in fighting the fires next to their homes.”

The cultural assumptions within the Forest Service also help to explain the continued commitment to firefighting. As a branch of the Department of Agriculture, the agency’s primary mission is not to guard forests for recreation or ecological benefits, but to manage resource extraction. A large percentage of the USFS budget comes from the receipts of timber sales on federal lands. The agency is in the business, as it were, of growing trees.

The Firefighting-Industrial Complex has become an important economic and political engine in the rural West.

Wildfires complicate this task. Forests – like any ecosystem – are everchanging, and fires are a key part of that dynamism. But from a resource extraction viewpoint, a static landscape is preferable, as it is easier to manage. We fight fires, then, because we want to keep the forests under our control so that tree harvests are easier.

“It is command and control management,” says Dennis Odion, a professor of ecology at Southern Oregon University. “In terms of natural resources, and having access to natural resources, you want a steady landscape. But the forests are not going to go away. I think we can afford to take a bigger view that allows for landscapes to be more dynamic, that allows for fires to burn and then regenerate. You can’t have the same landscape over time – it just doesn’t work that way.”

An Ecological Insurgency

The unrelenting battle against fire has led to many casualties. The collateral damage includes harm to the forests themselves, the sacrifice of other important government functions, and a real human toll in the lives of firefighters. The no-holds-barred strategy for firefighting is the ecological equivalent of destroying the village in order to save it.

One negative consequence of firefighting is the damage done to forest soils that become compacted or eroded due to all of the extra activity. The scene on any fire line will include long columns of men, armed with pulaskis and shovels, marching through the forest digging trenches and cutting brush to create firebreaks. They are assisted by bulldozers and plows that slice 12-foot-wide barren strips through the forest. All of the terrain clearing can damage sensitive riparian areas by displacing dirt into streams.

Further harm is done as crews chop down mature trees and snags to create firebreaks. These tree fellings destroy important habitat for many bird and animal species. The reliance on fire retardants is also dangerous. One of the most commonly used retardants, Phos-Chek (produced by Monsanto), breaks down into toxic ammonia and phosphoric acid at temperatures above 200 °F. If the chemicals run off into lakes or ponds, they can immediately kill fish and amphibians, or can contribute to algae blooms that kill fish over time.

Even more ironic is the fact that a century of fire suppression has made fires more likely and, once they occur, more intense. The removal of fire as a kind of cleansing force in the forest has led to a buildup of trees that means more fuel for blazes.

“It turns out that putting fire back in is a lot more complicated than taking it out,” Pyne says. “We have charged into the environment with a paramilitary apparatus, and maybe we have created an ecological insurgency in the process.”

Determined to keep battling that insurgency, the Forest Service dedicates more and more of its resources to fire suppression, a decision that is forcing cutbacks in other areas. In absolute terms, the USFS expenditures on fire suppression have quintupled in the last 30 years, and have tripled as a percentage of the agency’s overall budget. That means less money for trail building, campground construction and maintenance, and research into habitats and water quality. The budget tensions have become so bad that in 2007, five former Forest Service Chiefs warned Congress that “the Forest Service has been put into an untenable financial situation due to the way fire suppression is being funded in the federal budget.”

missing image fileKaren Wattenmaker, kwphoto.com Even when thousands of men and tons of material are deployed to fight a fire, the battle is typically decided by weather factors like moisture and wind. The government is paying millions of dollars to get the same result as if it had spent nothing.

“Firefighting is bankrupting the Forest Service,” Stahl says.

The spending on fire suppression can seem especially unwise given that, according to some forest ecologists, there is really very little that we can do to halt a large wildfire. Even when thousands of men and tons of material are deployed to fight a fire, the battle typically is decided by weather factors like moisture and wind. Often, the government is paying millions of dollars to get the same result as if it had spent nothing.

“We can no longer operate from the assumption that we can control when and where fires burn,” says Professor Odion. “They are going to do what they are going to do, because it’s so much driven by climate and weather. It’s a Sisyphean task.”

The worst casualty is neither economic nor environmental. Every summer, firefighters perish in the line of duty. Sometimes they are protecting a home. Other times, they are far off in the wilderness, fighting a blaze that poses no real threat to property. For example, last August a helicopter carrying 11 firefighters and two crewmembers crashed while en route to a fire in the remote Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Nine men died.

A Militia, Not an Army

The “problem” of fire is not an issue of blazes consuming the landscape; rather, it’s a problem of fires torching houses. One reason the government spends so much money fighting the war on wildfire is that, increasingly, it has to defend homes located in the wild. When crews are battling a fire, they can often expect to see roofs in the near distance.

According to a study by the University of Wisconsin, between 1990 and 2000, 61 percent of new housing in California, Oregon, and Washington was build in what fire experts call the “wildland-urban interface.” Nationwide, more than 8 million homes have been built on the edge of fire-prone ecosystems in the last 20 years. Agriculture Undersecretary Rey compares this to “taking the equivalent of the population of California and sprinkling them throughout the woods.”

The controversy over wildfires, then, is above all a consequence of unchecked development. “We really need to rethink where new communities are located and how homes are built,” Ingalsbee says. “It’s urban sprawl that is the main cause of these wildfire disasters.”

This suggests that if we can find a way to guard our homes against flames, then we can learn to live with fire and give up – surrender, if you will – the need to constantly be on military alert.

Jack Cohen, a USFS researcher at the fire lab in Missoula, MT, has studied fire patterns for years, and he says there are a few simple steps homeowners can take to protect their property. The most important is to not have a flammable roof; a metal roof might not have the sylvan attractiveness of cedar shingles, but it’s the best way to prevent a home fire. Cohen’s second recommendation is for homeowners to clear brush, dead trees, pine cones, and pine needles for at least 100 feet away from structures, creating what is called “defensible space.”

“By and large, we don’t have a choice over fire behavior,” Cohen says. “But what we can do is reduce the vulnerability of the house. And the way to do that is through some relatively simple things. We don’t have to live in a concrete bunker to do this.”

Another way for people to save their property is to stay behind and protect their homes in the case of a wildfire. This may sound like suicide, but it’s a proven strategy.

“I can defend my house with an M-16 and a bazooka, but not with a garden hose and a rake. That’s pretty absurd.”
—Fire historian Stephen Pyne

In Australia, another place prone to powerful fires, the government has a firm policy: Either leave well in advance of a fire, or stay and defend your house. This accomplishes two goals – it saves lives and it saves houses. Many people who die during fires do so because they evacuate too late and are caught and overcome by smoke and flames. And often homes are destroyed because they are unattended. Small embers landing on roofs or entering homes through vents, not direct contact with flames, are typically the cause of home destruction. If a homeowner has taken proactive steps to create a defensible space, it is possible to protect a home from ember ignition with something as simple as a garden hose.

The challenge of adopting a similar policy here lies in reformulating the balance of responsibility between private property owners and the government. If homeowners were expected to take a greater role in defending their houses, they would be more likely to take proactive steps to make their property less vulnerable. But the current situation creates a disincentive for action, since the existence of a massive professional firefighting force supports the assumption that one’s house is safe. Homeowners can rightly expect the government to do whatever it takes to protect their homes.

“We are now in this absurd situation where we are evacuating hundreds of thousands of people, and those people could be defending their homes,” Pyne says. “Fire has been taken out of the hands of citizens and, in effect, declared a government monopoly. I can defend my house with an M-16 and a bazooka, but not with a garden hose and a rake. That’s pretty absurd.”

Agreeing on a policy that would allow homeowners, if they wish, to remain behind and defend their homes from wildfires would be a massive shift. It would mean rewriting tort law to reduce fire agencies’ legal liability. It would mean more neighborhood collaboration to create “fire permeable” communities. And it would mean – to extend the military metaphor – moving from the idea of a standing army toward the concept of a citizen militia in which everyone would be empowered to protect their own backyards.

“The Australian model would be a cultural sea change,” Stahl says. “It would be a declaration that we are not engaged in warfare against fire, that instead it’s simply a police action.”

Perhaps most challenging is that adopting something along the lines of the Australian policy would demand a fundamental change in how we understand our relationship with this force of nature. It would be an exercise in finding a way to live with fire, rather than trying to force fire to conform to our needs. That’s a cultural battle that will take time – and one that we are far from winning.

“I think our view of fire is a function of a 20th-century pathology, a hubris that puts humanity above nature, a kind of God complex,” Hanson says. “We need to stop ‘fighting’ fires. We need to adapt to them.” n

—Jason Mark is the editor of Earth Island Journal and the co-author of Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots.

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