Fire Fighting is Like Health Care

Suppression Cost

Health care and fire suppression costs have increased in real dollars dramatically during the last 30 years.

U.S. per capita health care expenditures have gone up about 7 fold in real dollars (net of inflation).

The graph above shows that federal wildland fire suppression cost per ignition (in real dollars) has increased 4-fold during the same period (source data can be found here).

At the risk of unduly straining the analogy, the real cost increases in both sectors are likely a sign of underlying “unhealthy” conditions. Too much biomass — obesity & overstocked forests — can lead to inflammation. And of affluence. Too much technology to finance end-of-life care and too much expensive end-of-forest air attack.

Not too many “things” have suffered this magnitude of real cost increases — certainly not wages (flat) nor gasoline (decline).

20 thoughts on “Fire Fighting is Like Health Care”

  1. I think the analogy is a decent one, but I think too much emphasis is placed on “overstocked forests” instead of placed on “consumption.”

    By consumption I mean “over-consumption” of the Earth’s resources including wildlands (ie the building of homes, neighborhoods and towns within the so-called Wildland Urban Interface). When taxpayers have to pay for professional firefighters to be flown out from the east coast to do mundane and routine yard chores (ie raking pine needles) no wonder firefighting costs are soaring. The same costs skyrocket when homes and neighborhoods are built within the WUI.

    Remember, at one point in human history we had epidemic levels of “consumption” (ie tuberculosis) that killed hundreds of thousands. Modern day over-“consumption” also kills people, wildlife and wildlands, but in different ways….to say nothing of the tremendous costs bore by taxpayers.

      • No, actually, I was up on a ladder painting my neighbors house all day, JZ. I do have elk jerky in the smoker today, so perhaps that’s what you smell. Besides, Andy made an analogy and warned that he may be straining it a bit. I simply expanded on that analogy.

        I’m sorry that the fact that hundreds of thousands of people used to die of a disease they called “consumption” (ie tuberculosis) and now one could make a solid argument that hundreds of thousands of people (and wildlife, wildlands, etc) die at the hands of “over-consumption” is lost on you.

        By the way, I pretty much agree with everything Greg Nagle said below in comment #3. Thanks.

  2. Very few fire fighters rake yards, and those who do are probably on standby there and they put them to work on that but I recognize the point although reasons for increase in suppression costs are more complex and account for much more money than working in yards.

    But true that many have to be stationed in the WUI so that adds up.

    Was B n B fire on the Deschutes in an overstocked area? When it hit the lower elevation P pine it calmed down a lot and there had been a lot of timber harvest in the area. Places it burned hottest were in higher elevation mixed conifer stands which usually tend to have a lot of biomass and fuel and tend to a stand replacement or mixed regime.

    I think the increase in biomass with dense ladder fuels is a valid concern in places at mid and lower elevations , such as seen on Davis fire where understory LP which came in about 1920, allowing the fire to move up into the canopy of very old P pine. But I contend that a lot of other places have stand replacement regimes that tend to burn hot under right conditions which sure seem to be hitting us a lot lately. Gosh, maybe there is some kinda climate change…maybe???.

    In the right weather conditions it will torch hot no matter what you do, and we are looking at plenty of that to come,

  3. Andy

    Re: “the real cost increases in both sectors are likely a sign of underlying “unhealthy” conditions. Too much biomass — obesity & overstocked forests — can lead to inflammation”
    –> Agree. Which is why I repeatedly point out that harvesting paid for by buyers of timber can, under appropriate guidelines, be an asset in funding expenses by the proceeds from reducing stocking to more appropriate levels.


    I agree and disagree.

    Re: ” When taxpayers have to pay for professional firefighters to be flown out from the east coast to do mundane and routine yard chores (ie raking pine needles) no wonder firefighting costs are soaring.”
    –> I maintain that firefighting cost are directly to slightly exponentially proportional to the acreage burned. I also maintain that global warming increases the acres burned all else being equal. As a result, I maintain that sound forest management resulting a well dispersed matrix of stands of various ages, stocking and species is more important than ever in minimizing the impact of global warming by increasing the probability that crown fires will be brought to the ground more quickly and extinguished more easily when the time is appropriate to stop them.

    Re: “Remember, at one point in human history we had epidemic levels of “consumption” (ie tuberculosis) that killed hundreds of thousands. Modern day over-”consumption” also kills people, wildlife and wildlands, but in different ways….to say nothing of the tremendous costs bore by taxpayers.”
    –> In the long run, the utopian ideal of no more wars and no more disease is sort of self defeating isn’t it? A population in excess of carrying capacity can’t be a very pleasant thing to experience. We know what came before, we know what we have, but the signs of what is to come definitely raise serious concerns. We have created social programs to provide for the unlucky and those less suited to compete for a living. We have postponed the concept of survival of the fittest that flows naturally from the concept of evolution.
    Soooo – Which is the greater sin: allowing survival of the fittest to play its role partially offset by those endeared to the disadvantaged OR pulling everyone down to the lowest common denominator and increasing the number of lives lost when the social experiment fails as it has every time that it has been tried. The only alternative is a government panel to decide at what age and or medical condition to march us off to the gas chambers. Frankly, I’d rather accept things as they are and do my very best to be among the fittest. In fact, I honestly believe that that is what our constitution dictates. But then who pays attention to the constitution anymore?

  4. And note how many acres have been burned in Alaska in unprecedented blazes of a size and severity not seen in centuries. The Medieval warming period also saw much more fire and we are looking at the same and worse. I don;t think we can do much on a large scale. Much of what has been burned and will burn is not suitable for timber harvest or treatment.

    • “Therefore . . . ”

      1. Death panels would reduce end-of-forest costs, such as the wasteful and senseless dumping of expensive aerial fire retardant, which accomplished little, if anything, at Yosemite’s Rim Fire.

      2. Investing in health maintenance, e.g., fuel treatments and prescribed burning in appropriate forest types, is almost always less expensive than heroic end-of-life care.

      3. Scientifically credible placebo-controlled studies to eliminate ineffective and costly procedures. For example, fire retardant’s effectiveness at improving initial attack success, reducing average size or protecting homes has never been demonstrated empirically.

      4. Punish unhealthy behavior, e.g., building flammable homes, with steep taxes and/or insurance premiums.

  5. Greg asks “how much of the cost of a large fire is actually retardants?”

    GAO reports that one-third of the cost of large fires is aviation attack. Aviation costs include ferrying firefighters around and reconnaissance, but the overwhelming air cost during a large fire is retardant or water dumping.

    Typical retardant dump is 2,000 gallons. Cost of the retardant materials alone is about $2 per gallon.

  6. so if one third of fire suppression cost is aviation and most of that is retardant, then we might expect that about 25% of total suppression costs are retardant….?

    It seems that costs are still high even without retardant. After all the graph shows costs escalating by 5 times an acre . Other factors obviously also play a strong role in cost increases and what might they be?

    I can see total costs going up with size of fires but the increase in costs per acre is less easily explained. I assume that the fires burning at the WUI attract a lot more resources, retardant being but one of others.

  7. What can account for the four-fold increase in real dollar federal firefighting suppression cost during the past 25 years? First, note from the graph above a bump in cost circa 2000. A former Clinton-era Forest Service chief told me that one of his notable achievements was to wean the Forest Service from its budgetary dependence on timber sale dollars. Doing so, he explained, required a substitute cash cow. He chose fire. And it’s worked for the Forest Service even better than expected.

    There’s no doubt timber was good for the FS’s coffers as the agency got to supplement appropriations with timber sale receipts. But fire is even better. For one thing, notwithstanding Ax Men, fighting fire is more heroic than logging. Saving people’s homes is more popular than contributing to the local lumber yard’s 2×4 supply. And with Smokey, fire fighting has a more well-known icon than even my Oregon Duck.

    Federal fire fighting is a congressional blank check that just keeps on giving.

  8. So massive fire fighting is since it is a cash cow? Maybe, but coupled with the large increase in fire size and the number of threatened homes in the WUI, it seems that there is overriding public support for these efforts. Or is the FS supposed to not ask for the money when people do expect them to deal with it?

    Of course, the FS could just let a lot of fires burn…until…they get away and then what??? And people rail at them for not doing more?

    What exactly do you propose to do on these fires? When exactly will you choose to sit back and let them burn? I know we can do that in some remote, large wilderness areas which they do, but what about the rest of the landscape?

  9. Didn’t the FS see its fire fighting budget get hit hard by congress this year, necessitating those recent budget raids. I recall somebody talking about this on this blog. Are costs per acre any higher this year or were they facing a weak budget from congress?

    And back to my original point, since 2000 haven;t we seen a lot more very large fires with much higher costs overall.?

    And except for retardant, how would you suggest these costs can be taken down? it is not as if the workers are being overpaid since most are contingent contract workers who may have to sit on their butts at no pay for weeks. A less aggressive attack strategy may work fine in places until it does not work and then what do we have?

  10. @greg nagle
    Hi greg: I’m having a little glitch problem with the new site, so “Replies” have been showing up as new Comments. Just in case this is still happening and you have to scroll down to see my response.

    I suggest that wildfire fighting costs be significantly reduced by the same methods I have continued to propose for more than 25 years — through active management of forest fuels. Which should also generate a significant profit (“rural jobs and infrastructure”) over time, as Larry and Gil consistently point out. Proactive best offense is a good defense approach. Better planning, too — why are contract firefighters sitting on their butts at all (and I do believe lots of them are paid for this down time), when there is so much work to do keeping access roads open, removing hazard trees, mowing surface fuels, and — most obvious — setting landscape-scale fires in areas that have been prepared to receive them?

    Active management of forest fuels and commonsense (“efficient”) management of our trained labor forces and aerial support. Like we used to do: even though some now disagree with past methods and objectives, that is why terms such as outdated and updated exist — to upgrade and modernize those very methods and objectives. That’s my solution (and opinion).

  11. sure, I can’t disagree with any of that long term , but once a big fire gets going, I am not sure what to do and in justified panic, lots of money gets thrown at the blaze. You noted also the impacts of some huge burnouts during Biscuit but I have no idea what the alternatives might have been. If it had jumped the Bear Camp road into the Rogue canyon, who knows where it was going to stop.

    I would have liked to do a workshop to dissect the decisions made during Biscuit since there was a lot of misinformation floating around-such as that the FS deliberately allowed it to get away so they could log the north end.

    I felt like i was dealing with nuts but what else is new. And ummm…that Karl Rove (what??? What???) was directly involved in the Biscuit suppression decisions. Soured me out on a lot of enviros, I preferred the feds who had to maintain a professional demeanor.

    But my naive idea that we could all sit together and talk it out was not likely.

    So much for that opera but you have seen many more than me.

    I am at the Forest Planning Institute in Hanoi. Odd to be talking about US fires but…..some passions never die out.


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