This Is How Much America Spends Putting Out Wildfires

unbalanced budget

Here is an interesting article, with great graphics from Mother Jones Magazine. I just have a small extract here so you can get a flavor, but check out the links and graphics in the original.

Indeed, firefighting expenditures have consistently outpaced fire preparation expenditures, even as experts like Covington and Douglas insist that, like the adage says, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Since 2002, the average dollar spent on firefighting has been matched by only 80 cents in preparatory spending on things like clearing away hazardous fuels and putting firefighting resources in place:

Wyden’s bill, which he calls “arguably one of the first bipartisan efforts that could make a real dent in climate change,” is still in committee, and the House version has already taken heat from fiscal conservatives like Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.). In any case, it wouldn’t take effect until next year. But Covington argues that the government needs to approach wildfires as natural disasters on par with hurricanes and earthquakes, and that we should plan for a future that is much more severe than the past.

“Earlier in the century, if they saw what’s been going on since the ’90s, it’s just inconceivable,” he says. “It alarms me that people don’t realize how much is being lost.”

Some thoughts..

1)There are many sources of increased costs, as we have discussed here before. More rules, better equipment, etc.

2) I like that the article says “they are able to extinguish most fires when they are relatively small.” I wonder how that tracks with various let-burn policies, though.. as in “we are able to extinguish them, but we don’t.” And if they don’t, how many of the larger fires does that explain? If we let some fires burn on purpose, wouldn’t acreage increase over the time we didn’t?

3) I thought this was interesting… “In 2006, Westerling counted instances of fires greater than 1,000 acres in Western states; the study, published in Science, found that “large wildfire activity increased suddenly and markedly in the mid-1980s.” But CO2 I don’t think increased “suddenly” so I wonder if there is another explanation?

4) I found this quote intriguing, if you think about it..
“Environmental change is complicating the work of fire managers who already had their work cut out for them restoring forests from the decades-long practice of suppressing all fires, which led to an unhealthy buildup of fuel that can turn a small fire into a megafire.”

Well, fire managers planned to “restore” forests that have an “unhealthy” buildup of fuels. It seems like there are only two ways of doing it..mechanical treatments and prescribed burns or some combination, if, in fact, we are talking about forests that have “unhealthy buildups.” Since it is really hard to do either one (litigation on mechanical, safety and health on prescribed burns) the idea that this will happen across all acres in the west, even with unlimited bucks, seems unrealistic to me. Maybe we need some more realistic ideas like “climate change has made fires unpredictable and scarier. Therefore we should do more mechanical fuel treatments.. enough to make a difference and protect communities, and be very very careful with prescribed burns and fire use.” Climate change makes things worse, but just makes us want more money, not change our approach?

5. I like that this article says that “80 cents in preparatory spending on things like clearing away hazardous fuels and putting firefighting resources in place” so hazardous fuel treatment is a good thing, yet as we have seen in the pages of this blog, those projects can be hung up for years in some cases due to the way appeals and litigation works.

6. In this Mother Jones article, people who argue for fuels treatment projects are Democrats (Wyden) and those against, Republican (because of the bucks). For those of us who have sat through House and Senate hearings, it’s a fascinating take.

7. Finally, if you’re in the west, and you’re thinking “but we don’t have a drought, here, it’s been raining all spring and summer” you can find yourself in the helpful map below. Here is a link for more info.


14 thoughts on “This Is How Much America Spends Putting Out Wildfires”

  1. “Therefore we should do more mechanical fuel treatments.. enough to make a difference and protect communities,”

    Shouldn’t this be one of the key questions that forest plans should answer: where will the FS emphasize protecting communities from fire? It seems to me that if that question were answered through the much-touted ‘collaborative’ planning process, it might actually lead to less controversy and more cost-effective management. Unfortunately, I’ve not seen the FS wanting to approach it this way.

    • It is all-too-easy for the serial litigators to bypass the local collaborative group, using the “sue and settle” strategy to get what they want. Both sides would like to use “dirty tricks” to exclude their opponents from the process, completely. I don’t see any solution, other than reforming all legal processes involved in forest management. I’d also like to see ESA management plans changed to protect habitats at-risk from catastrophic wildfires. Such plans would go a long way towards reducing litigation, too. Let’s ask wildlife biologists what they would want, in a fuels project, to protect owl and goshawk habitats from stand replacement fires.

      • The Wildlife Society (TWS) peer reviewed the 2010 Draft Recovery Plan for the Spotted Owl which called for extensive logging to reduce fire hazard and protect habitat. TWS used state-and-transition model to evaluate the effects of opening dry forests to reduce fire hazard versus the effects of wildfire.

        The results of running the model with 2/3rds of the landscape treated leads to open forest becoming predominant after a couple of decades, occupying 51 percent of the forested landscape, while mature, closed forest drops to 29 and 24 percent of the Klamath and dry Cascades forests, respectively (Appendix A, Figure 5, shows the Cascades). Treatments that maintain open forests in 2/3rds of the landscape put such a limit on the amount of closed forest that can occur, even if high severity fires were to be completely eliminated under this scenario, there would only be 35 percent of the landscape occupied by closed forests. In contrast, to the extensive treatment scenario, treating only 20 percent of the landscape reduces mature, closed canopy forest by about 11 percent (Appendix A, Figure 6).
        One justification for the extensive treatment scenario promoted in the 2010 DRRP is that it is needed because of increased fire hypothesized to occur under climate change. By doubling the rate of high severity fire by 2050 with 2/3rds of the landscape treated, closed canopy forest is reduced to 25 percent in the Klamath compared to 60 percent without treatment and 23 percent in the dry Cascades compared to 54 percent without treatment.
        Under what scenario might treatments that open forest canopies lead to more closed canopy spotted owl habitat? The direct cost to close forests with treatments that open them is simply equal to the proportion of the landscape that is treated. This reduction in closed canopy forest can only be offset over time if the ratio of forest regrowth to stand-replacing fire is below 1 (5-8 times more fire than today), and shifts to above 1 with the treatments (and most or all stand replacing fire in treated sites is eliminated, as modeled here). Another scenario that allows closed forests to increase would be if treating small areas eliminated essentially all future stand replacing fire, not only in treated areas, but across the entire landscape. This scenario obviously relies on substantially greater control over fire than is currently feasible, and it would increase impacts of fire exclusion if effective.

        In sum, to recognize effects of fire and treatments on future amounts of closed forest habitat, it is necessary to explicitly and simultaneously consider the rates of fire, forest recruitment, and forest treatment over time, which has not yet been done by the Service.

        The potential impacts of fuel treatments on spotted owls are not considered. … We also know little about the impacts of fire, yet this has been treated as a major threat, leading to proposing more fuel treatments. However, it is uncertain at this time which is a bigger threats, fires or treatments to reduce risk of fires. … If the plan intends to use the best available science to describe ongoing impacts to spotted owl habitat, information and literature about disturbances to reduce fuels should be included.
        … there has been no formal accounting of how closed canopy forests can be maintained with the widespread treatments that are being proposed.

        The Wildlife Society 2010. Peer Review of the Draft Revised Recovery Plan for Northern Spotted Owl. November 15, 2010.

        This analysis is consistent with the findings of Raphael et al (2013) used a state-and-transition model to explore the effects of landscape fuel reduction logging on spotted owls and found:

        Active fuel reduction activities in moderate habitat contributed to substantial short-term (simulation years 0 to 30) population declines under the larger area, higher intensity scenarios. … The combination of BDOW interactions and high-intensity, larger-area treatments contributed to the most substantial NSO population bottlenecks. The combined effects of aggressive fuel reduction treatment approaches and interactions with BDOWs have the potential to contribute to increased extinction risk for NSOs in both analysis areas. … It appears that management regimes that take out owl habitat through treatments (either current or potential future) do not reduce the amount of habitat that is lost to wildfire enough to make up for the habitats lost through treatments.

        Principle Investigator: Dr. Martin G. Raphael. Project Title: Assessing the Compatibility of Fuel Treatments, Wildfire Risk, and Conservation of Northern Spotted Owl Habitats and Populations in the Eastern Cascades: A Multi-scale Analysis. JFSP 09-1-08-31 Final Report, Page 19.

        • Here in California, the California Spotted Owl has much bigger risks to their nesting habitats. Fuels are a bigger issue here, and when their nesting habitat burns, reproduction stops. Yes, the owls still live on and use burned areas for foraging habitat but, they do not have any nests. Their reproduction rates are tied to the actual presence of nests. Maybe someone should try running a simulation without nesting habitats, to see just how the birds would be impacted in the worst case scenario? Just HOW MANY actual nests were lost in the Biscuit Fire, for example?

          I have worked on a project that included a unit within a CASPO PAC. We thinned out trees within 10″ dbh to 15″ dbh. The intent is to remove those ladder fuels, underneath an old growth component.

  2. Somehow, it’s no surprise the Dems in favor of fuels treatments are favored. The Wyden camp is the Franklin camp, with the diameter limits and all the other whatnot that will cost more and treat less per acre. The Franklinites understand that fire is a problem, that habitat is in fact being wrecked, but they can’t bring themselves to accept that forest policy is of such a scale that it simply has to be commercially viable.

  3. You said ” “large wildfire activity increased suddenly and markedly in the mid-1980s.” But CO2 I don’t think increased “suddenly”” This carbon pulse does not show up at the global scale at which CO2 is typically measured because:
    1) The western U.S. is a small part of the global carbon cycle.
    2) The time since 2006 is a relatively short period.
    3) Forests are growing faster than they are burning.

  4. 2nd Law, I’m not clear what you were saying.. could you explain further? My point was simply that slow processes like CO2 increase atmosphere would not logically lead to a sudden change in some outcome (more wildfires). Say if leafy spurge expands in a watershed by 2% a year, then if something increases 75 in 5 years, it’s probably not due to leafy spurge. Further, when you’re using correlation to explain things, and the patterns don’t match, it seems to be you need to think up a mechanism that would explain why you think the slow increase led to a sudden change.

    Probably the author did in the paper, but it didn’t come out in the news article.

    • I totally agree you about the need to provide mechanisms to bolster correlation. But then I was also thinking a little about catastrophe theory and tipping points, while I was out filling up the horses’ water trough this morning. And with my being lost in thought, that system suddenly went from steady-state to a catastrophic (external) flood. So maybe there’s an analogy.

      This guy explains it well: “Many complex dynamic systems have critical thresholds where, when a tipping point is passed, the system shifts to another state. In this new state the system either collapses or cannot be sustainable maintained. For instance, after centuries of deforestation of the Easter Islands by its inhabitants there were at one point in time (tipping point) no trees left, which
      caused a strong population decline after a long period of growth.”

      • Guy, I think the concept of tipping points makes some sense. However if any actual tipping point can’t be explained in advance or predicted, I wonder if they are today’s equivalent of “God will get you.”

        We don’t need systems theory to explain a trough overflowing or bad effects from removing trees, or cultivating the plains. In fact we adjusted just fine on the greatest environmental catastrophe (Dust Bowl) without sophisticate systems thinking. Grass keeps dust from blowing away.

        Say in this case… the patterns do not match as you would expect if the two factors were correlated. So instead of saying “maybe something else is the cause” or “there are some other factors, which we need to examine jointly with CO2” we say.. “oh well must be a tipping point.” When we get the same answer regardless of data, I gotta wonder if it’s really science.

        Tipping points are also used to warn people of “bad things that aren’t actually predicted by any particular model.” So they are in the realm of “God is going to get you, unless you do what I say.”

        As Steven Rayner said more articulately in this piece.

        • Well, my analogy was somewhat tongue-in-cheek and definitely was overly simplistic. A fundamental aspect of nonlinear systems is emergence, and indeed things often do not match as you might expect if factors were correlated. That isn’t really the same as saying they’re entirely unpredictable, though our lack of understanding about big systems, and stochasticity around every corner, may drastically limit predictability. I would disagree that this equates to “God will get you”, which I would characterize as an appeal to superstition, but enough on that. To each his own.

          Rayner generally confuses castrophe theory with catastrophism. They are quite different but unfortunately sometimes get jumbled together. I would expect him to know the difference; maybe he does and is hiding it to widen the popular appeal of his essay. It’s easy enough to look the terms up with Wikipedia etc., so I’d be surprised if he didn’t bother to do that. Similarly, his comparisons of climate science with “millenarianism” has a look-how-clever-I-am thing going for it, but not much else; i.e. the signal-to-noise ratio in his piece is very low.

    • I thought you were saying fires would lead to CO2 increase (that’s what I was responding to), but maybe you were suggesting the opposite that CO2 increase would lead to warming would lead to fires. In the latter case, remember that CO2 increases slowly and acts as a constant forcing on top of a dynamic climate system. See slide 14 here:,%20Boise%20%20(062408).pdf

      In the short-term, fire occurrence responds to decadel oscillations in the ocean/atmosphere system. Over the long-term, these decadel oscillations (and fire) will be more and more affected by CO2 and global warming.


    Last year’s (2013) S1875 did not get out of Committee.

    This year’s (2013) HR 3992 has a 30% probability of passing.

    The language in both bills is similar.

    So far (06/2014) 18 of California’s Representatives have signed on as cosponsors. 7 Democrats, 11 Republicans. Which reflects that rural California is represented by Republicans. Democrats supporting represent rural areas. Urban Representatives are silent.

    The way I read the bill, it is an appropriation for $2.689 Billion for each year 2014 to 2021.

    Do any of the California Counties track Congressional Bills like this?

    Are any of the Fire Safe Councils making an effort to get or to block Congressional support of this bill?

    [email protected]

    • Well, with the promise of more Rim Fires by the “Whatever Happens” crowd, urban Representatives seem worried that “doing nothing” during a drought might not be the best way to go. No matter what we do, or don’t do, it will cost us money, as well as costing us the loss of amenities that cannot be assigned a monetary value. Besides, I doubt that urban voters would support turning green forests into snaglands and brushfields, on purpose.


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