This article discusses a report from FUSEE (Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology – dutifully described as funded by environmental organizations) on the 2016 Soberanes Fire on the California coast:
In the first week, the blaze destroyed 57 homes and killed a bulldozer operator, then moved into remote wilderness in the Los Padres National Forest. Yet for nearly three more months the attack barely let up.
The Soberanes Fire burned its way into the record books, costing $262 million as the most expensive wildland firefight in U.S. history in what a new report calls an “extreme example of excessive, unaccountable, budget-busting suppression spending.”
The report suggests the Forest Service response was the result of a “use it or lose it” attitude to spend its entire budget, which had been boosted by $700 million because of a destructive 2015 fire season. The agency managed to spend nearly all its 2016 money in a less-active fire season on about half the amount of land that burned the year before.
“They just kept going crazy on it,” report author Timothy Ingalsbee said. “It wasn’t demand-driven. It was supply-driven. They had all this extra money Congress had given them, and they had to justify that.”
An internal Forest Service review produced last year and obtained by the AP reached some of the same conclusions as Ingalsbee.
The review found forest managers didn’t think they could deviate from the “overwhelming force concept” aimed at suppression. It also said the agency’s protocol for managing long-term wildfires “does not sufficiently evaluate and adjust to changing risk.”
One challenge fire commanders faced was an outdated forest management plan for Los Padres that called for full suppression of all wildfires, Ingalsbee said.
Mike Warren, a retired National Park Service firefighter who reviewed the report, questioned the wisdom of suppressing fires in remote wilderness where flames can help eliminate brush and other flammable vegetation that could fuel a later wildfire.
Of course that highlighted part made me curious about what this 2005 forest plan said. I assume that interpretation is based on a table of “suitable uses” (Table 2.3.4) that shows that none of the six management areas are suitable for “Wildland Fire Use Strategy.” I can see how that would lead to an approach of burning money.
Wildfire responses include a spectrum of strategies that include full suppression, confine/contain, monitoring, and management to meet resource objectives. The entire spectrum of strategies is available in all the zones and wildland fires will be actively managed in all the zones to meet objectives.
That includes the “Community Wildfire Protection Zone,” where (p. 76):
Wildfire is suppressed under most weather and fuel conditions due to the very significant risk of potential economic loss and public safety concerns posed by a wildfire occurring within this zone.
The article also acknowledges the “pressure from politicians, homeowners, businesses, loggers and ranchers to control the fire. I suppose that kind of pressure was part of why this forest plan says what it does, and other places have different issues, but the forest planning process is a good place to talk about what the tradeoffs are.