“Koch Brothers’ Mouthpiece” Slams Forest Service Firefighting Spending

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Every now and then, Cato Institute senior fellow Randal O’Toole returns to his public land policy roots. Today he plays a familiar riff on firefighting spending.

Twenty years ago, one could have imagined a congressional coalition of Blue Dog Democrats and sensible Republicans working together to come up with a new fire policy. No longer. The Blue Dogs are almost extinct, now numbering only 15 members and “sensible Republican” is an oxymoron. Which leaves the legislative arena to western senators of both parties who want the CNN air show to continue, welcome the federal dollars spent in their states, and are scared to death of offending heroic firefighters (they remember that Conrad Burns lost his Montana seat after dissing a firefighting crew).

10 Comments

  1. The article doesn’t mention the trend of “Let-Burn” fires that get away from firefighters. Those costs are much more than than the larger backfires, which are used in situations where safety is a big concern. As I have said before, safety is one issue and “resource benefits” is a much different one. That being said, I don’t think the “Let-Burn” issue has much play in this year’s funding situation.

    It is MUCH easier to throw money into brand new shiny engines and crew carriers than to fund sensible thinning and prescribed fire programs. It is always fun for politicians to wear the yellow fire shirt and stand next to a brand new green fire engine.

  2. As for Toole, come on Andy, he’s running your bottom line — fuzz around the edges and burn what devil may care otherwise! That’s straight Sonoran/Headwaters. You sure he’s getting Koch money, or are you channeling Harry Reid, too?
    This stuff needs to be, but never will be, considered on a stop-loss/avoided cost basis. With all that fancy GIS data out there, you can’t tell me there’s no way to figure out where management could be conducted that prevents foreseeable loss while bringing in revenues right up front. Not everywhere, not instantly, but over time? Oh, oops, I forgot about Congress. Sorry. My mistake.

  3. Looking at the current Forest Service wildfires, it looks like they are spending about a million dollars per every 1000 acres of some wildfires. As we get into the heart of western fire season, I would expect that figure to go up, by spending more money on contract crews and resources. It used to be that each Forest could put a 20 person hand crew together, as well as manning backup engines with people not in fire. Today, many timber crews are not allowed to fight fire, with their “trigger fingers” being too important. Yep, just keep working and don’t worry about raging wildfires!

    • Nothing would make more sense than to have sale administrators fight fire directly. Turn on the visual calculator and have them read fire behavior in given conditions. That would translate straight to layout and marking.
      And on the other side of that coin, when loggers gripe back about a layout, because they’ve fought the fires directly, it might be a good idea to listen to them.

  4. My favorite tool is a Pulaski having spent many a night building handline in California, Washington and Wyoming in the days when we’d “hotline” and work right on the fire edge.
    What’s wrong with the current picture you ask?
    One, is that the forests are out of whack because we’ve tried to suppress fires for 100+ years. Many Western forests were born of fire and its time we recognize that reality. Just talked last week w/ a native of Packwood, WA. who says they need some fire in upper elevations of Gifford Pinchot NF to create elk summer habitat (the critters now spend much of the year in town because that’s where the browse is).
    Two, more logging won’t stop wildfires. See the NY Times op-ed by Chad T. Hanson and Dominick A. DellaSala (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/23/opinion/more-logging-wont-stop-wildfires.html?_r=0). Better yet, get your hands on their new book; The Ecological Importance of Mixed-severity Fires – Nature’s Phoenix.
    Three, creating defensible space around homes is the most effective way to reduce risk to structures. It’s also more cost effective for all of us who bear the cost of suppression. Thinning 20 miles away in “Podunk National Forest” is not worth it; and it beats the heck out of watersheds via the impact of more roads. Why the heck are U.S. taxpayers subsidizing the cost of protecting folks who choose to build & live in fire prone landscapes? Oregon Public Broadcasting recently reported that crews on the Chelan Fire in north central Washington were limbing trees in town of Chelan to reduce fuels. WTF? Why didn’t the town and/or homeowners do that before fire season? I’ve been working in PNW forests since ’76 and I know there have been fires around Lake Chelan in that time. I have my earthquake supplies in my backyard because I want to be ready and waiting until last minute won’t cut it. And because I don’t expect someone to bail me out.
    Here’s an excerpt from a Washington Post opinion piece by Kyle Dickman (Five Myths about Wildfire): “There are 70,000 communities, 1.1 million homes and almost $269 billion worth of property at very high risk of wildfire damage in the United States. By one estimate, less than 2 percent of those communities have done anything to prepare for the flames. Under current practices, more wildfires will menace these homes.
    But certain strategies can mitigate the risk. From a planning perspective, communities can treat fires like floods by looking at fire-frequency maps to determine the places where homes are most likely to burn, a policy followed in Australia. Homeowners can create defensible space around their houses by using chainsaws and chippers to thin the forest near their property. The National Fire Protection Association found that homes with a fire-resistant roof and 30 feet of defensible space have an 80 percent chance of surviving a wildfire . During the tragic Yarnell Hill Fire, ranches built with fire-resistant materials and surrounded by defensible space survived 30-foot walls of flames while the homes around them burned.”
    Four, throwing more money at fire suppression is bad fiscal and ecosystem management policy. It makes no sense to put wildland fires into the “disaster” funding system. The Congress needs to tell the USFS to rein in its costs – no more blank check for fire fighting. Why the heck are the FS costs so much higher than BLM costs?
    It has taken me many years to get away from some of the crap I learned in forestry school; I’ve kept the useful info and tossed the rest.
    OK folks, fire away!

    • One: Blame the past. Don’t blame the now for the past.
      Two: We have discussed the book and the rhetoric in several places in this blog.
      Three: I’ve seen intense fires jump over multiple large obstacles. There is plenty of middle ground and tools in the toolbox to deal with specific issues, in most places. On most Forests, there are plenty of existing roads, and temporary roads are preferred, if needed. New road construction is almost taboo, on many Forests.
      Four: Turning $6000 lightning fires into $100,000,000 firestorms is not fiscally responsible, either. Ask Colorado about their post-fire floods. Free-range wildfires is a dangerous fantasy, in a land choked with such fuels build-ups. Bridges and highways wash out. People die from wildfires and the post-fire flooding.

      I am with you on reining in the wildfire spending. More oversight, more rules and accountability. There are cheaper ways to deal with the wildfires, rather than letting them get huge, damaging and miserable for humans.

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