A Taxpayer's Guide To Wildfires: Part 4

A Taxpayer's Guide To Wildfires: Part 4


Human Factors

The human dimensions of fire management are a long-neglected area of research and policy, and yet their role in suppression costs is critical.78 Human factors account for the variation in firefighting costs between different wildfire incidents when all other factors in the fire environment (e.g. fuel loads, weather conditions, terrain, etc.) remain relatively the same. However, unlike the socioenvironmental or institutional factors discussed above, human factors underlying the strategies and tactics for managing wildfires could be the easiest and quickest to change. The human factors contributing to increased suppression spending can be categorized into 1) “external” cultural/political factors, and 2) “internal” operational and motivational factors. These two sets of human factors play critical roles in the decision whether or not to suppress a wildfire in the first place, and if so, what strategy and tactics will be used.

Both kinds of decisions greatly affect costs.

External Political/Cultural Factors

The “external” influences on suppression costs come from outside the government agencies, and center on cultural, political, or media expectations that pressure fire managers to opt for aggressive suppression actions instead of alternative modified suppression or fire use strategies.79 A century of pro-suppression policies and anti-fire propaganda have created a “Smokey Bear syndrome” in that most of the public expects firefighters to attack all wildfires. There are strong public expectations that wildfires will be suppressed, that firefighters will always be effective in their actions, and that no expense will be spared in their efforts to protect life and property. A study by NASF summed up the essence of this cultural dilemma: “Citizens, politicians, administrators, and the media have no concept of reality.”80 In the false belief that firefighters can actually control large wildfires even during severe fire weather conditions, these external influences exert extreme pressure on fire managers to use costly and extraordinary suppression methods even when managers know that these efforts will have no beneficial effect on the wildfire and will likely be an economic waste.

Firefighters have a phrase for these kind of knowingly futile attempts at controlling wildfire: “political shows” or “political smokes.”81 Political shows refer to those cases where politics pressure managers to use suppression resources, strategies, or tactics that they normally would not use, and when they knew it would be ineffective or unnecessary, because of political pressure by local communities, politicians, or the media to go “put out” a wildfire. Examples include the use of expensive aerial retardant drops during fire behavior conditions that have no chance of success, or suppressing interior hotspots that have no chance of escaping the wildfire perimeter just to reduce the public’s perceived fear of fire spread. These political considerations can actually be the driving force behind specific suppression decisions, and can have major influences on costs.82 One of the most common “political shows” is the use of heavy airtankers or Type I helicopters—a major cost center on large wildfires—even when they are largely ineffective because they display to the public or media that the government is actively and aggressively attacking the wildfire.83

Political shows are often the result of external “political meddling” that occurs at the upper levels of an agency, applied to line officers above the level of the IMT that is actually managing a wildfire. Pressure from elected officials gets handed internally down the chain of command to the IMT to implement more aggressive and more costly strategies and tactics. A related form of political meddling that increases suppression costs occurs when politicians or other VIPs and their large entourages make visits to fire camps. These visits typically includes airflights or driving tours not necessary for suppression operations but desired by the officials to get a closer view of the fire.84 Visits by politicians often distract fire managers from the task of managing wildfire operations, require extra security and media personnel, and the high costs for managing these official visits are charged to the wildfire.

Public, political, and media pressure for firefighters to aggressively suppress wildfires are especially high when fires burn near the WUI. In these cases, most of the public expects firefighters to do whatever is possible in order to protect private property no matter what the expense.85 This expectation of firefighter protection actually encourages new housing development in indefensible fire-prone locations, and lulls homeowners into a false sense of security and passivity in terms of mitigating fire hazards on their own lands. These both complicate wildfire management, increases the risks to firefighters, and raises costs. It also causes fire managers to focus their efforts on the WUI where their work may be futile instead of managing the fire in the wildland where actions might be more effective and even beneficial to the ecosystem.86 In this sense, agencies must demonstrate that they do everything they can (and cannot) to “protect” structures rather than actually coherently manage the fire. This focus on managing public perceptions/expectations has definite cost implications.

The external influences of cultural expectations, political meddling, and media relations all pressure fire managers to opt for aggressive suppression and ignore its costs instead of choosing less costly fire use strategies or modified suppression tactics. Changes in policy or operations to encourage more fire use for ecological benefits, or adhere to cost containment goals, will likely prompt strong external opposition especially from private landowners, individual homeowners, or community leaders because they face potential risks of wildfire damage, but they are not directly responsible for the costs of suppression. Yet, a century of aggressive suppression has revealed that there are significant ecological risks and economic costs associated with failing to let more fires burn.87

In many respects, higher suppression and/or fuels reduction costs are shunted into the future with each “successful” effort to contain or control fire. Indeed, the Forest Service’s Inspector General concluded that by fighting many fires that could have been managed with fire use tactics, the agency missed many opportunities to let fire reduce hazardous fuels, and spent millions of dollars on suppression.88 The current pro-suppression system is simply unsustainable, yet the public will continue to expect that agencies will suppress most wildfires unless and until the financial burden is shifted away from the federal government onto States and local communities or individual homeowners.89 Serious work needs to be done to change the societal expectations to put out all wildfires. Changing societal expectations will require a compelling narrative linking residential and firefighter safety with ethical and ecological land stewardship. Strong and durable talking-point memes must be developed to counter the prevailing suppression ideology, private profit motives, and bureaucratic inertia. Given ample data on the costs and impacts of wildfire suppression, and knowledge of the ecological and economic benefits of fire use, it is more a lack of political will within the agencies that impedes their ability to resist external political pressure to fight all fires.90

Internal Factors: Leadership Accountability and Risk-Aversion

The least-discussed set of explanations for the rise of suppression expenditures are “internal” agency pressures related to its pro-suppression policy bias, the general lack of oversight and accountability for suppression expenditures, the lack of incentives for managers to contain costs, the general aversion of managers to take risks to manage wildfires for resource/ecological benefits or opt for anything less than full suppression, and poor decision-making by land and fire managers in their choice of suppression strategies and tactics.

Agency Bias for Suppression and Lack of Accountability for Reducing Costs

As discussed above, federal land and fire managers experience intense pressure from the general public, politicians, and the media to fight fires, but this “external” pressure coexists with a strong internal bias in favor of suppressing wildfires that goes back to the origins of the Forest Service. Over the last century, firefighting has delivered essential public, political, and financial support to the agency, and with almost half of its annual budget now devoted to suppression, it is fast becoming its core mission. This “internal” pressure leads the agency to aggressively attack and suppress over 98% of all wildfire ignitions, regardless of the cause, location, or conditions of the fire, and with hardly any thought as to the risks, costs, or impacts of aggressive firefighting. More ecologically enlightened policies that would allow alternatives to aggressive suppression have been on the books for nearly 30 years, but Forest Service practices lag many years behind its fire management policies.91 The task of containing suppression costs will never be successful until the internal bias of managers that favor “fighting fires” is changed.

Related to this internal institutional bias in favor of fire suppression lurks a widespread lack of accountability for reducing suppression costs.92 In a survey of fire managers by NASF, nearly a quarter of the respondents said that a lack of accountability or incentives to reduce costs is one of the two most significant factors contributing to rising suppression costs.93 While suppression “cost effectiveness” has been a goal within the Forest Service for over 15 years, there has never been an analysis of what suppression strategies or tactics might be cost effective.94 Instead, essentially the old “10 am policy” of aggressive initial attack to quickly contain and control wildfires is assumed to be the most cost effective approach, but this externalizes the cost of future fuels reduction projects or wildfire suppression actions in the unburned fuels that result from stopping the wildfire.

Currently, “cost containment” has become the goal of federal agencies, but there is no real penalty for individual managers who ignore this goal and spend whatever they desire on firefighting operations.

Thousands of personnel hours have been invested to produce dozens of reports and reviews that examined the factors underlying suppression expenditures, but their findings and recommendations have been routinely ignored, and there is no accountability for the agencies or individual managers to actually implement cost containment recommendations.95

Because so much money can be spent so quickly during a wildfire “state of emergency,” it creates a huge potential for fraud, waste, and abuse of taxpayer dollars and resources, and in response to Congressional demands for greater cost accountability, the agencies have taken some positive steps to provide more oversight of suppression expenditures. Examples include the use of “Incident Business Advisors” (IBAs) on Incident Management Teams, daily cost reports, monitoring of resource orders for equipment and supplies, releasing crews as soon as possible, and cost reviews for suppression incidents that exceed $10 million for Department of Interior incidents or $5 million for Forest Service incidents.96 A study by the Brookings Institute, however, determined that these measures would provide marginal savings of 5-10% at best.97 Not an insignificant amount when suppression costs top over a billion years annually, but using IBAs to monitor spending will not lead to a qualitative reduction in suppression spending. Indeed, there is a difference between accounting and accountability, and improving the former does not necessarily ensure the latter.

Lack of Incentives for Fire Use and “Risk-Adverse” Managers

Along with the general lack of accountability there is a lack of incentives for managers to choose alternatives to aggressive or full suppression using whatever resources are available regardless of cost. Federal land and fire managers basically have an “open checkbook” attitude when it comes to devising strategies and tactics for managing wildfires, and the current incentive system rewards managers for suppressing wildfires, but places obstacles and imposes penalties for managing wildfires for resource benefits.98 If anything, there is far more incentive to reduce the potential risk of wildfire damage, especially to private property, than there is to reduce the costs of wildfire suppression.99

The issue of “risk aversion” among land and fire managers is becoming a major issue within the fire management community. This emerges in a couple of forms: managers’ aversion to take risks with the safety of firefighters or the public, and their aversion to take risks with their personal reputations or careers. The two kinds of risk aversions flow out of the tragic South Canyon, Thirtymile, and Cramer fires that killed firefighters and led to their incident commanders being subjected to internal investigations and even criminal prosecution for negligence. These incidents have caused many fire managers, perhaps rightly so, to believe that their agencies will not support them and that they will be held personally liable if something goes wrong.100 Relatedly, many managers have the false perception that cutting costs also compromises firefighter safety. This causes them to both order an excessive amount of firefighting resources, and select more expensive capital resources like aircraft over less expensive labor resources like handcrews.101 If any accident were to happen, managers could defend themselves with the claim that they employed every available resource at their disposal, holding nothing back from fighting the fire.

An increase in rules and regulations in the wake of these tragedy fires now makes it easier to inadvertently violate policies or procedures during the “heat of battle,” elevating the perception of risk of getting blamed for accidents or mistakes. Managers fear that they are not only risking their careers, but potentially face financial or criminal liability if a wildfire causes injuries or fatalities to firefighters or the public, and/or destroys private property, so they do whatever it takes to avoid these risks.102 This risk aversion usually results in choosing high-cost suppression strategies and tactics even if they are ineffective or excessive. For example, risk-adverse fire managers often order firefighters to perform “aggressive mop-up” (putting out all visible smokes and hotspots after the flame front has passed and fire spread has been contained) deep inside the interior of burned areas, even though there is a low risk of the fire escaping containment lines, and this kind of mop-up operations can account for half of the work hours on large fires.103

Some fire managers have had their careers in fire management abruptly end when escaped prescribed fires or wildland fire use fires “blew up” and burned private property, but no manager has lost his or her job from ordering massive suppression resources or spending exhorbitant taxpayer dollars to aggressively fight a wildfire.104 There are simply far more internal incentives for managers to aggressively suppress wildfires and limit fire spread, and far more personal risks to them to contain costs or utilize wildfires for resource benefits. There needs to be a cost-benefit analysis of fire management strategies and tactics that incorporates the totality of management goals, for example, internalizing future suppression or fuels reduction costs for each “successful” suppression incident that stops fire spread, in order to evaluate what might be the most cost-effective methods for managing wildfires. However, unless and until the whole calculus of risk can be reversed such that aggressive and expensive suppression tactics become recognized as the most risky actions from firefighter safety, socioeconomic, and ecological perspectives (compared to monitoring or managing fires with minimum impact, low-cost tactics) then the issue of managerial risk aversion will continue to be another driver of rising suppression costs.

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