Should Interior Take Over Wildland Firefighting?

In an earlier post, NRDC’s Niel Lawrence is quoted saying that the Forest Service “has learned to maximize its income in the fire suppression business.”

The graph above shows the quotient of Forest Service and Interior Department fire suppression costs between 1997 and 2008. The trend line is provided by Excel. The source is “Air Attack Against Wildfires: Understanding U.S. Forest Service Requirements for Large Aircraft,” published recently by the Rand Corporation.

For the math challenged, the graph shows that the Forest Service’s fire suppression costs, relative to DOI’s for the same years, have been increasing for a decade.

I don’t fully agree with Niel because I think the Forest Service hasn’t yet learned “to maximize its income.” It is still discovering new tricks to increase milk from the fire suppression cash cow, e.g., adopting an ecologically illiterate and expensive wilderness fire suppression policy.

25 thoughts on “Should Interior Take Over Wildland Firefighting?”

  1. Andy.. “ecologically illiterate” really? Isn’t that a bit of a strong statement? You might argue that humans growing crops changes the way things used to be and is therefore improper. It does seem like putting out some fires earlier in wilderness (for this season?) is less of a change than converting grassland to wheat or forestland to houses.

    • Andy, this may seem unduly untrusting, but I seldom believe any numbers that I haven’t run, or at least, clearly understand myself.

      For example, once I was responsible for counting research funds for biotech for the FS. The Dept changed the definition, which required me to call each unit and ask how many projects fit under the new definition. After I rounded up the numbers, the Dept asked why the FS was reducing its biotech research. I had to tell them that we didn’t change anything we did, but you guys changed the definition.

      To relate it to this question, I have no idea what DOI considers suppression costs, if it’s the same as the FS, nor if either changed its definition during this time period. I have no idea whether ASC, or whomever else was counting the numbers accurately on the FS side (questions have been raised about this).

      I do think that RAND was an unusual choice for doing the analysis, since it does not seem as if any of the main analysts have any experience with these issues. I still haven’t figured out if it was competitively awarded, nor the rationale for using experts on defense issues on firefighting. This does not give me more confidence in any numbers that they might generate.

      Maybe we should bundle all federal firefighting turn it over to FEMA? That may be the equivalent of what Colorado did.

  2. JZ,

    “Landbase” misunderstands the graph’s arithmetic.

    The “y” axis of the graph is FScost/DOIcost. The “x” axis is year, 1997-2008. Thus, the respective landbases are removed from the calculation — they “cancel out.” The graph shows that the FS’s suppression costs are increasing at a faster rate than the DOI’s suppression costs. Of course, the agencies’ respective landbases don’t change over time.

    To put it another way, at the beginning of the decade, the FS was spending about 2.4 times/acre as much as DOI agencies on fire suppression. By the end of the decade, the FS was spending about 3.5 times/acre as much.



  3. OK, landbase+jurisdiction.


    DOI (BLM) = sage, grass, juniper fires that are generally wind driven, they get huge, go out fast.

    FS = timber fires that take much longer to deal with.

    Not sure what it would show, but perhaps compare the number or retardant drops on BLM jurisdiction vs. FS jurisdiction may be a worthwhile investigation.

    Incident management teams (and resultant long duration committment of crews) are generally the largest cost.

  4. JZ,

    Ecological differences between FS and DOI lands also cannot explain the FS’s cost increase RELATIVE to DOI’s over this 10-year period. Ecology could explain why the FS spent 2 times what DOI did in 1997. It cannot explain why the FS’s costs increase steadily compared to DOI’s until, by 2008, the FS spends more than 3 times as much per acre. The FS’s 1997 forests are still forests in 2008. DOI’s 1997 sagebrush is still sagebrush in 2008.


    • I’d say that policy and tactics have added costs to the Forest Service. “Preserving” wildfires is more of a USFS thing. When wildfires are allowed to burn for weeks, the probability of multi-million dollar incidents rises dramatically. Look at the costs of wildfires during 2007! Tactics and policy made a huge difference! It might be interesting to compare 1987 and 2007, with both years being epic, here in California.

      • I think Larry’s point is valid. The USFS is the only agency I know of that has a policy of “let it burn” that has increased costs of fire “suppression” dramatically during the past 20 years as one result.

        By contrast, BLM grasslands and shrublands have significantly less biomass per acre and quickly run out of fuel. That is, these latter fires are impossible to keep going for any length of time, whether they are actively suppressed or allowed to burn. They just go out.

        I’d agree with JZ’s contention of “landbase plus jurisdiction,” and that Larry’s “policy and tactics” is the key difference in jurisdictions, just as fuel loads are a key difference in landbases.

        • OK, I’ll bite and assume the figures are correct for the purpose of this discussion.

          Andy’s point is why would the FS’s increase from 2x to 3x what DOI did.

          Seems like we have two potential explanations on the table- 1) let burn policy
          costs of watching “let burn” fires, increased costs of fighting out of control formerly “let burn” fires,

          or 2) structural changes in firefighting personnel and therefore costs.

          If it were 1), we could actually put fires into a category as to whether they were ever “let burn” and ask the question, how much did those cost and what proportion of the total costs are they? Are there expenses on the average higher than those which start with the same number of acres but are suppressed? Since, conceivably, the point of the “let burn” policy is to do “prescribed burning” wouldn’t you have to subtract the “watching “let burn” fires costs” from total suppression costs as it is really a “prescribed fire” cost.

          Like I said, statistics and accounting are both fraught with difficulties. If we really wanted to explore this we would first have to understand and agree on the accounting categories included and then try out our different hypotheses and see what worked best to explain the differences.

          The “greedy Forest Service” hypothesis I consider highly unlikely.

          • Sharon: Despite USFS semantics, a fire started by lightning is no more “prescribed” than falling of a cliff is “flying.”

            A prescribed fire is, by definition, one that is performed under a prescription. Critical elements of the prescription are fuel loads, project boundaries, and location, method, and timing of ignitions; by (hopefully trained) people — NOT lightning, volcanic eruptions, or spontaneous combustions. People.

            Calling a lightning fire a prescribed fire is just like calling “preservation” the same thing as “conservation” — changing the root meaning of a word to mean the exact opposite. Like Animal Farm, it’s politics, not science.

            Wildfire economics should be objectively based on costs and losses — not self-serving categorizations. Same with prescribed fire economics. They are separate considerations.

            (And I agree, sort of, on one point — this appears to be far more a question of USFS incompetence and misguided federal politics than simple greed.)

            • Bob:
              I believe that a lighting fire that burns under predetermined conditions specified in a plan is just as ‘prescribed” as a “planned” ignition. The conditions under which it will be allowed to burn are part of that prescription. If it is accomplishing desired objectives, it’s beneficial and has positive values that can be estimated. There may also be costs (e.g. smoke). Arson fires are in a trickier category, since they sometimes may actually be accomplishing management objectives but result from behavior that can’t officially be condoned.The bottom line is that fire is fire, regardless of the ignition source. What makes it bad or good are human values.

              The Forest Service can’t afford not to take advantage of wildfire when it is accomplishing desired management– management that the agency can only accomplish on a small scale through burning, thinning, etc.

              • Jim: I strongly disagree. Are these “prescribed” lightning fires prepared with fire trails, fuels properly mapped and bounded, and personnel distributed in key locations across the landscape at the time of ignition? Is the pattern and timing of ignitions designed to pull the fire back away from the firelines and to send the smoke as high into the air as possible? Those are some basic attributes of a prescribed fire that have nothing to do with lightning ignitions.

                Economically, if lightning can burn an area off as “prescribed,” then why can’t people do it better and cheaper? First?

                Another difference is the predetermination that an unplanned event is “beneficial and has positive values that can be estimated.” How are these “estimates” made? By who? Are these things documented so the public can see what the estimates were that drove these decisions?

                Bottom line: are these critical decision-making “positive value” estimates expressed in dollars, or otherwise quantified?

                (And I agree with JZ and others that there are many areas in which wildfires can be left to burn and for lots of good reasons — whether started by lightning, lava, or incendiaries — but I think it is a very slippery slope to begin calling these events “prescribed fires.”)

                • My thoughts:
                  Fire lines may not be needed. Where they are, they can be constructed after ignition. Yes, fuels need to be mapped in advance. Appropriate personnel must be assigned.
                  If the the predicted weather and fire behavior won’t provide for appropriate fire behavior and smoke management, the fire may not be desirable and can be actively suppressed.
                  It may or may not be cheaper. A big difference is the dollars that pay for it. A managed wildfire is being paid for with (abundant) suppression dollars, not (scarce) fuel reduction dollars.
                  The positive values of fuel reduction and ecological restoration/maintenance can and should be expressed in terms of dollars. I don’t think current procedures do that very well.

                  • I’ll bet that if overtime and hazard pay were removed from “Let-Burn” fires, firefighters would have a different opinion of how things should be. Equating such fires with prescribed fire is disingenuous and dangerous, and not a risk I think we should be taking, right now.

                • Bob, I think (and if someone knows more, please correct me) the decisions are called “fire use” decisions and set guidance for where and under what conditions fires can be used. I believe that they are documented in NEPA decisions with full public involvement.

                  The link to the fire plan amendment on the GMUG for example, appears to be broken but here is a blog post that gives the press release..
                  Personally I find the blog post hard to read to the colors of the background, but it has the key information of one forest’s reason for doing it and the process.
                  Oh, also ignore the 2012 date on the blog post (!!) I think they finished this amendment in 2007.

  5. Andy,

    Aside from the DOI taking over wildland firefighting, what suggestions do you have that are relevant for us here on NCFP?

    It is obvious that policy is to blame for much of this, but I’d first ask you have you ever been an Incident Commander on a large fire or been a Duty Officer responsible for implementing fire policy? Your response will help frame my understanding of where you are coming from. Not trying to pin you down, just better understand your arguement.

    I have followed many of the recent Congressional hearings….I haven’t seen any DOI folks getting raked over the coals over the lack of response to the fire threat (real or perceived) from bark beetles, climate change, etc because their landbase generally doesn’t have those issues (cheatgrass, grazing and sage grouse aside).

    I am woefully out of my debt in trying to articulate why the relative costs have increased…I think the answer lies somewhere in that “happy” grey area between politics and science/reality. I don’t have an answer, nor would I care to speculate.

    Since your mind seems to be made up, however, I’d again ask, what can “we” feed up to make this a valuable dicussion vs. just another comment thread?

    By the way, the graph above only shows one line…hard to interpret.

  6. The Forest Service used to have fire-ready crews, doing other kinds of work for most of the year. They have traded those crews for commercial wildfire resources, costing 3 times more than Forest Service “regulars”. Additionally, our crews were always more available and closer to the action. Today, most Ranger Districts have few extra red-carded folks outside of their engine crews.

    • I have never understood why the USFS and BLM have crews just sitting around doing nothing so much of the time — when we are constantly being told (and can readily see) that there are tens of millions of acres needing fuel management treatments.

      Why aren’t these guys building fire trails, setting up hoses, and performing much needed prescribed burning projects while waiting for wildfires to develop? Further, couldn’t such strategies be coordinated with locations of high likelihood of wildfire, building thousands of acres of buffers between human communities and travel corridors during these “down” times?

      Common sense and conservative use of resources says: “of course.” Current federal policies and much of the environmental industry say: “no way.” When, where, and how does this nonsense end?

  7. Bob–
    I share your frustration. Sometimes they are available for other types of work. There are lots of reasons for them not being available, many of which are legitimate. Some of the reasons, less so. This didn’t use to be the case when many fire personnel where in the “militia”, but has been exacerbated with the shift to full time fire fighters who have much more rigorous training and qualifications requirements than in the past.

    • JZ,

      Thanks for the pointer. The study reports that incident commanders blame the “local agency administrator” for high fire suppression costs, see p. 418. The report notes that “Increasingly, teams are encountering agency administrators with little or no suppression background or experience with fire. Those interviewed state that this can escalate costs because agency administrators without fire experience tend to be more risk averse and want to use more resources than perhaps necessary to avoid possible bad outcomes.”

      First, I gotta say that when the t.v. cameras are rolling at large, costly project fires, it’s not the local district or forest supervisor who is getting the face time. It’s the incident commander sounding very much in control of everything. I’ve yet to hear an IC say “We’re fighting this fire just how the district ranger told us to.”

      However, if one accepts the IC’s attribution of cost escalation, the use of the word “increasingly” suggests a possible hypothesis, one similar to the theory that national forest boundaries have been more rapidly affected by WUI development than have Interior lands.

      Has the FS been hiring more fire-inexperienced district rangers/forest supervisors than DOI agencies have for comparable positions?

      The last time I checked — many years ago — a federal employee’s c.v. is public information. Another chapter for the grad student’s thesis.

      • Andy, I would predict that if they interviewed agency administrators, they would have a different list of hypotheses. And if by chance they interviewed the two groups in a room together, they might get even different hypotheses. With what it costs for one GCM model run, someone could probably look at this from a variety of angles and actually apply some rigor to the question.

        Also here’s a version with the interview questions.

        Maybe JFSP could put an integrated approach to understanding fire suppression costs as a primary area for proposals next year?
        Here’s what they currently have..

        We could imagine a public/practitioner/scientist inquiry approach, with hypotheses vetted jointly and a public dialogue on hypotheses and methods carried out via the internet…

  8. Two comments: first, at least from my experience working with the Forest Service, there are no fire crews “just sitting around doing nothing so much of the time.” If there isn’t fire related work to be done, then they are often helping other departments, including recreation and natural resources.

    Second, I wonder if part of the difference in cost growth between DOI and USFS is due to the growth of the WUI, and the building of houses in the WUI. I don’t know, but I would guess that there would be more development closer to USFS lands than DOI. And as we all know, fighting fires near homes adds significantly to the cost of fire fighting.

    • Rec guy… good point and it would be an easy GIS exercise to pick a WUI definition, and see how much FS WUI there is compared to BLM WUI (acres burned within WUI might be harder), and see if the amount of WUI increased over time, and how proportionate that would be to the increase in costs.

      Well, maybe not an “easy” GIS exercise, but it could be done. Grad students?


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