A Taxpayer's Guide To Wildfires: Executive Summary
Wildfire suppression costs are soaring to over one billion tax dollars per year. This is causing a fiscal crisis in the Forest Service which has exceeded its suppression budget almost every year for the last 20 years. The agency now spends nearly half of its total appropriated budget on firefighting, and has been forced to transfer billions of dollars away from several non-fire land management programs to pay for suppression. Recent legislative changes to suppression funding (e.g. the FLAME fund) may provide better accounting for suppression costs, but do not impose firm budgetary limits on suppression spending, nor absolutely prevent continued transfers of funds from other management programs to pay for firefighting.
Part of the reason suppression costs are rising is because wildfire activity is increasing, especially the frequency of large-scale wildfires. Large fires account for less than 2% of all wildfires but consume 94% of total suppression costs. Despite huge increases in money, resources, and personnel being devoted to fire suppression, the number of burned acres continues to increase. While currently 6-8 million acres defines a “bad” fire season, experts predict an average 10-12 million acres will burn annually in the near future primarily under the impact of global warming.
Suppression costs are increasing due to several reasons that can be categorized according to socioenvironmental, institutional, and operational factors. The most popularly cited reasons for rising suppression costs are the socioenviromental factors of excess fuels accumulations caused in part from past fire suppression, expansion of housing development in the wildland/urban interface (WUI), and climate change from global warming fueled primarily by human-caused fossil fuel burning. Of these three, climate change is the dominant factor affecting increased wildfire activity and fire size due to its effect on weather and vegetation and length of wildfire season.
Next to total fire size, the presence of private property or human structures in the vicinity of wildfires is the other factor most affecting the rise in suppression costs. Fire managers speculate that up to half of total suppression expenditures are related to private property protection in the WUI. Over 44 million homes in the U.S. are currently located in fire-prone WUI areas, but the Forest Service predicts a 40% increase in new homes in the WUI by 2030 which some studies estimate could raise annual suppression costs from $2 to 4 billion.
Among the institutional drivers of rising suppression costs are the budgetary structure for the Forest Service that authorized deficit spending for suppression operations. This has nurtured an “open checkbook” attitude among managers to order whatever resources or actions they desire regardless of cost, and this inhibits efforts to contain costs. Worse, some critics argue that the budget system with authorized deficit spending has set up a system of “perverse incentives” for agencies to rely on reactive fire suppression actions rather than proactive fuels reduction or ecosystem restoration projects since these must be funded by fixed budgets, and impose more legal requirements (e.g. environmental analysis and public involvement) in comparison to firefighting actions which have almost no budgetary limits, legal constraints, or public oversight due to their “emergency” status.
Another institutional driver of rising suppression costs is the growing use of private contractors to provide firefighting crews, aircraft, vehicles, supplies and services. Private contractors typically account for over half of total expenditures on large wildfire suppression incidents, with some suppression resources costing several thousands of dollars per hour to use. The privatization of firefighting has been driven largely by political and ideological interests seeking to shrink the size of the federal workforce, and has been sustained by the promise that private businesses would provide cheaper, better, more efficient service. However, private contractors not only cost more than public agency crews, but there have been concerns about the inferior work performance of some contractors whose lack of productivity (e.g. fireline construction) also raises suppression costs.
Another institutional factor is the inequity structured into cost-share agreements between the federal and state governments. The federal government usually pays the bulk of suppression expenses on multi- jurisdictional wildfires, even if the major reason a wildfire is being suppressed is to protect private or state lands. Local, county, and state governments receive all of the benefits of new development in the WUI (e.g. increased property taxes, building permits revenue, etc.), but do not pay their full share of wildfire protection costs. The result is that taxpayers across the country are essentially “subsidizing” private development in an expanding WUI by providing free/low-cost fire protection to private property owners. More equity in cost-share agreements would not necessarily reduce suppression costs, but might provide more incentives to local governments to restrict or regulate WUI development in ways that reduce the risk of wildfire damage and therefore reduce the pressure for aggressive suppression on adjacent public lands.
Operational factors are the least-discussed reasons for rising suppression costs, but the human factors influencing the objectives, strategies and tactics managers employ to respond to wildfires have huge cost implications. First, the agency is sensitive to external cultural expectations by the public and political demands by politicians to aggressively fight all wildfires. Expensive suppression resources or actions are sometimes ordered to satisfy agencies’ public relations needs even though conditions on the ground make them unnecessary, inefficient, or ineffective. There is far more pressure placed on managers to prevent wildfire damage than to reduce suppression costs, consequently, there is a general lack of accountability for suppression spending, and numerous reports and recommendations for containing suppression costs have largely been ignored.
Along with external pressures to fight fires, and a lack of accountability for reducing suppression costs, there is a lack of incentives for managers to implement alternatives to aggressive suppression, especially wildland fire use. Managers fear public reaction, personal liability, or professional demerits on their careers if any accidents (e.g. firefighter fatalities, destroyed homes, scorched private lands) were to occur from a wildfire they were managing for resource benefits. These so-called “risk-adverse” managers are actually comfortable with imposing risk on firefighters by exposing them to the inherent health hazards and safety risks of firefighting, and externalizing risk to ecosystems due to the biological effects of fire suppression/exclusion and the potential increased severity of future wildfires. Consequently, many wildfires are unnecessarily or over-aggressively suppressed when they could have been managed at lower risk to firefighters and lower cost to taxpayers.
Of all the factors accounting for rising suppression costs, operational factors have the most potential to immediately reduce suppression costs. Managing wildfires—as opposed to simply “fighting” them--with alternative strategies and tactics that maximize the social and ecological benefits of burning while minimizing their potential adverse effects is far more economically and ecologically rational. A more strategic and selective approach to fire suppression would focus it on frontcountry communities which absolutely cannot tolerate fire, and then implement fire use tactics in backcountry wildlands which generally require more fire. This approach would not necessarily reduce overall taxpayer expenditures since managing wildfires that burn larger and longer will still cost money. But, instead of these being pure “costs” whose only benefit is the avoidance of adverse outcomes, fire management operations that use fire would become more like investments in beneficial community protection, fuels reduction, and ecosystem restoration that enhances long-term community sustainability and land stewardship.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Timothy Ingalsbee, Ph.D. is the executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology (FUSEE), and is a former wildland firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service and National Park Service. Ingalsbee is a nationally-recognized speaker and writer on fire management issues, and directed the Western Fire Ecology Center for the American Lands Alliance from 1997 to 2004. In 2002 Ingalsbee served on the Western Governors' Association's collaborative stakeholder group that developed the Implementation Plan and Performance Measures for the Ten-Year Comprehensive Wildfire Strategy. Ingalsbee was elected to serve as Board Secretary for the nonprofit Association for Fire Ecology from 2003-2009, and is currently working as Co-Director of AFE. Ingalsbee is also an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon where he teaches courses on forest fires and society.
ABOUT FIREFIGHTERS UNITED FOR SAFETY, ETHICS, AND ECOLOGY (FUSEE): FUSEE (pronounced FEW-zee) is a national nonprofit organization founded in 2004 that is dedicated to public education and policy advocacy to promote safe, ethical, and ecological fire management. FUSEE members include current and former wildland firefighters, other fire management workers, fire researchers and educators, forest conservationists, rural homeowners, and other interested citizens. A "fusee" is a quick-igniting, handheld torch used by firefighters to secure firelines, create safety zones, reduce hazardous fuel loads, and restore fire-adapted ecosystems. FUSEE informs, inspires, and empowers firefighters and their citizen supporters to become torchbearers for a new paradigm in fire management.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: The author would like to thank Douglas Bevington, Ph.D. and the Environment Now Foundation for inspiration and support for this project. Thanks also go to Joseph Fox, Ph.D. and Catia Juliana for editing and formatting the paper. All photos are courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service.