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There’s no money to fight fire with fire – by Sarah McQuate

In 2000, my husband’s cat made the news. The Cerro Grande Fire had chased his family from their home in Los Alamos, New Mexico but everything happened so fast that they didn’t have time to find their cat. When the cat ambled into the house a few hours later, firefighters caught him and stuffed him in a pillowcase to get him out of harm’s way. Needless to say, he was unhappy with this sudden change in plans and his rage was filmed for the nightly news to add some cheer to the sobering fact that over 400 families in Los Alamos had lost their homes.


We’re starting to change the way we think about wildfire management, and now we need to change the way we fund it.


We once thought that fire suppression strategies, which focus on extinguishing fires as quickly as possible, were enough to help us fight these fires, but fire prevention strategies are equally important. Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t have money to spend on fire prevention strategies because it spends the majority of its budget suppressing huge wildfires. For example, the Soberanes Fire, which started in July on the Central California coast, is now estimated to have cost $250 million and is one of the costliest fires in U.S. History, according to Jennifer Jones of the National Interagency Fire Center based out of Boise, Idaho. By the time this fire was 100 percent contained on Oct. 13, it had burned 132,127 acres, roughly four times the size of San Francisco.

The smoke plume from the recent Loma Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. This fire burned 4,474 acres in two weeks before it was contained on Oct. 12. Photo from Sarah McQuate.
The smoke plume from the recent Loma Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. This fire burned 4,474 acres in two weeks before it was contained on Oct. 12. Photo from Sarah McQuate.


Our original wildfire management strategies were put in place after the Great Fire of 1910, according to Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at UC Berkeley. This fire rampaged across Idaho, Montana, and eastern Washington; killed 86 people; and burned three million acres of land (almost five times the size of Yosemite National Park), according to the Forest Service. The severity of this fire was enough to convince the relatively new Forest Service to focus a portion of its budget on wildfire suppression techniques, says Stephens.


The Forest Service receives an annual budget from Congress to fund its projects, which include fire suppression. In general, the fire suppression budget pays for the people fighting the fire, air support, food, supplies and logistics, according to Stephens. Funding for fire suppression is now 56 percent of the budget, compared to 16 percent in 1995, and in all but two years since 2002, the Forest Service has even exceeded these funds. In the case of the Soberanes Fire, $220 million went to camp support, equipment, and personnel, according to the Forest Service.


At more than 130,000 acres, the Soberanes Fire was extraordinarily large. The Forest Service manages to contain 98 percent of wildfires before they reach 300 acres in size, according to a recent paper in Science. The other two percent of wildfires escape containment and “crown out.” When wildfires “crown out,” the fire reaches the tops, or crowns, of trees and leap from tree top to tree top, destroying large sections of forests as it goes.


These larger fires are in part due to climate change, but fire suppression strategies also lead to more intense wildfires.


“The effort to suppress fires means that when they happen, they become just about unstoppable,” says Malcolm North, who is both a research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service and a professor at UC Davis. “It’s not a question of keeping fire out. Fire is inevitable.”


Fire suppression leads to the accumulation of unburned fuel, or combustible material, in forests, according to North. This fuel can burn at high temperatures which makes for perfect crowning-out conditions.


aerial photo of a neighborhood burned to the ground amongst burnt trees
A street in Los Alamos, New Mexico after the Cerro Grande Fire. This fire burned 48,000 acres and left over 400 families without homes. Photo from FEMA/Andrea Booher.

The Forest Service can use fire prevention strategies to prevent crowning out, according to Stephens. These strategies, which include closely monitored fires such as prescribed and opportunistic burns, reduce the accumulation of fuel in forested areas deemed “at risk” for crowning out. These small fires prevent large fires and forest annihilation.


Budget-buster types of fires, like the Soberanes Fire, are eating up the Forest Service’s budget and hurting its ability to fund fire prevention strategies. The Forest Service is currently the only government agency that is required to fund emergency management entirely out of its own budget, according to Jones. When the Forest Service needs more fire suppression money than what it budgeted for, it has to “borrow” funds from its other programs, which means it has less money for fire prevention.


In an attempt to fix this situation, the Forest Service proposed the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act to Congress last year. This act would allow the Forest Service to ask for help for their most expensive fires, similarly to how the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) pays for emergencies related to hurricanes and other natural disasters. While this bill has strong bipartisan support in the House, it still has not passed. Maybe everyone is too busy preparing for the election this fall.


We have to change funding for the Forest Service. Everyone acknowledges that fire prevention strategies help prevent giant fires like the Soberanes Fire but nothing is happening. October is California’s worst month for wildfires and unless things start to change for the Forest Service, we’re going to continue to see these large fires in the future. It’s more pertinent than ever to take care of high risk areas before it’s too late.


Photo of the author, Sarah McQuate
Sarah McQuate

Sarah McQuate is a graduate student in the Science Communication Program at U.C. Santa Cruz. In the past, Sarah used microscopes to study how single-celled organisms like Salmonella can make us sick. Sarah is passionate about making the complexities of science accessible to everyone and she loves showing off how beautiful science can be. To see what Sarah is currently writing about, check out her work on Twitter, her website, her photo blog, or the U.C. Santa Cruz class blog.

  1. Good article with good information. However, one cannot look at the cost of wildfires and not consider the cost of contracting and cooperator support during the same period. Compare the increase in contract services with the rise in costs for the same period and the trend the same. Compare the Forest Service’s dependence on state and local resources to fight these fires and you will see the same trend line. They are directly related. The Forest Service and all federal land management agencies are chronically understaffed and rely heavily on contracted services that raise the prices significantly. Funding fire like disasters is necessary, but the money will go up in smoke if they don’t objectively look at the workforce deficiencies and the contracting costs to cover for it.

  2. “Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t have money to spend on fire prevention strategies because it spends the majority of its budget suppressing huge wildfires”.

    We just need our elected officials to end the USFS’s policy is to grow its budget on the back of taxpayers for the benefit of a few companies that employ USFS retirees. Other Federal agencies and many state Agencies blindly have a “policy” of doing what the USFS does.

    I am not using company names because the posts tend to be removed when I do. With very little searching, it’s easy to figure out who is who.Let’s start out with the one waste of spending Congress voted for.

    The Government Accountability Office issued a report in August 2013 titled WILDLAND FIRE MANAGEMENT Improvements Needed in Information, Collaboration, and Planning to Enhance Federal Fire Aviation Program Success (GAO-13-684).

    The US Forest Service wanted to acquire C-130’s to be equipped with MAFF retardant system. While a Forest Service official noted that the MAFFS system has been approved by the Interagency Airtanker Board, some federal and state fire aviation officials told us that the retardant line dispersed by the MAFFS system is generally narrower than firefighters prefer, which can either allow a fire to jump across the retardant line or necessitate an additional drop to widen the line, if another aircraft is available.

    While the Forest Service has indicated its long-term intention to rely on a government-owned fleet of C-130s equipped with MAFFS to meet some or all of its large airtanker needs, the agency has been unable to demonstrate the feasibility of this approach to Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

    The manufacturer of the C-130’s hired the former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment, who oversaw the US Forest. The company hired him to lobby the federal government to buy the company’s “firefighting equipment”. Despite not being able to prove to OMB that the acquisition of 7 X C-130’s made sense, congress approved the funding for these aircraft.

    Now, let’s move on to retardant. Although there are many other more effective, cheaper and safer chemicals available, they cannot be used in large air tankers because the USFS only approves retardant for large air tankers. Because many smaller aircraft (Single Engine Air Tankers in particular) operate out of large air tanker bases, they also use retardant.

    The initial savings start when the sole source retardant contract is ended. The savings grow even larger when any chemical that will work can be used in large air tankers.

    How does a company get a sole source contract?
    1.Hire ex senior USFS employees
    2. Patent a new “safe” gum thickened retardant
    3. Patiently wait a few months after the patent is approved for the USFS to
    change the retardant specification
    4. Act surprised when the new specification matches your patent
    5. Say good bye to the competition and raise prices.

    What did the taxpayer get?

    1.A retardant that is 3 times more expensive than the retardant it replaced
    2. A retardant that is no more effective than the retardant it replaced
    3. A retardant that kills fish with the same ease the retardant it replaced did

    Now back to the GAO report – The GAO report addresses a large air tanker company, whose CEO is the ex-Director of Acquisition Management at the USDA Forest Service.

    The GAO report states that during initial assessment of the retardant system in 2011, the Interagency Airtanker Board determined that the retardant delivery system did not meet established performance criteria and identified problems regarding the system’s design and performance.

    The company got a contract anyway. In December 2012, the Interagency Airtanker Board declined to extend the interim approval of “the company’s” system, citing the problematic retardant delivery system design and deficient performance during the 2012 fire season. The company got another contract. Despite the deficiencies, this company has gotten annual contracts every year until this year when it got a 5 year contract. Its airtankers were the ones the USFS sent to Canada earlier this fire season.

    The above is likely the tip of the iceberg.Just these few item amount to $100’s of millions of annual waste, and is the root cause of why the USFS firefighting budget is such a large part of its overall budget.

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