A non-partisan watchdog group has stated flatly what Montanans have long suspected: When it comes to fighting wildfires, Congress gives the Forest Service an open checkbook, with instructions to fight the fires now and tally the bills later.
The 2000 fire season was the most expensive in history. American taxpayers this year spent a record $1.6 billion fighting wildfires that scorched 7.1 million acres nationwide—950,120 acres in Montana alone.
The holocaust of 2000 was, according to a report by the Washington, D.C.-based Taxpayers for Common Sense, due to several factors, chief among them decades of poor public land management.
The explosion of new homes in the “wildland-urban interface”—where whole communities of homes are built up against the flammable forest—along with bottomless emergency funding and misguided congressional funding priorities that subsidize commercial logging all converged this year to create the perfect storm in Western forests.
In its report called “From the Ashes: Reducing the Harmful Effects and Rising Costs of Western Wildfires,” Taxpayers for Common Sense lists each factor it believes led to one of the most devastating fire years in recent memory, and proposes remedies.
As the summer’s wildfires waned with the autumn rains, many people, including Gov. Marc Racicot, placed some of the blame for the fires on the Clinton Administration, which, they said, scaled back commercial logging on national forests in the 1990s. Critics claimed the decline in timber harvest from a peak of 12.7 billion board feet in 1987 to 2.9 billion board feet in 1999 was partly responsible for the severity of the fires.
Taxpayers for Common Sense agrees that commercial timber harvest had an impact on the fire season, but not in the manner that Clinton Administration’s detractors believe. Instead, the organization says that commercial logging fosters wildfire in part because it removes the most fire-resistant trees, which are also the most valuable. Left behind are the smaller, fire-prone trees which pose a larger wildfire risk. Logging also affects the structure of the forest by increasing wind speeds, they say, and by opening up the forest canopy, which allows more direct sunlight to reach the forest floor. As a result, the ground fuels dry out more quickly, and the growth of understory trees increases, leading to weaker, more densely-packed forests.
The slash left behind by commercial logging—bark, pine cones, needles, branches, etc.—also increases wildfire speeds, the group says. Taxpayers for Common Sense cites a 1995 Forest Service study showing how slash increases flame length and speed. A Forest Service “Brush Disposal Fund” was created to remove logging slash, but a 1998 General Accounting Office report revealed that the Forest Service spent a third of this fund on administrative costs in 1997.
At least two fires, Ryan Gulch near Missoula and the Crooked fire on the Clearwater National Forest, were sparked by logging operations or were started in slash, according to the report. The two fires burned more than 22,000 acres combined and cost $12.5 million to suppress.
But logging isn’t the only factor. The fast-growing wildland-urban interface is another. Last August, Forest Service Incident Commander Steve Frye addressed several hundred nervous folks at a community meeting in Darby as flames were licking the ridge above the town. Frye had fought fires in the Bitterroot Valley years before. The big difference this time around, he said, was the number of new homes tucked up against the national forest boundary. Saving those homes became a firefighting priority, second only to firefighter safety.
Protecting those homes costs a disproportionate share of taxpayer suppression funds, the report charges. In 1994, the worst fire year in that decade in terms of acres burned, the Forest Service estimated that one-third of its firefighting budget was spent protecting homes in the wildland-urban interface. “The high cost to protect relatively few acres should alarm taxpayers,” the report states, “especially as more people move to dream houses in the interface zone, assuming that taxpayers will pay to protect their homes at any cost.”
Taxpayers for Common Sense recommends that Congress reverse its funding priorities when it comes to firefighting.
Homeowners in the wildland-urban interface should be educated about fire prevention strategies, such as the use of fire-resistant roofing shingles and building materials, constructing wide driveways for fire trucks, clearing vegetation from around homes and the like. The report also agrees with the National Association of State Foresters, which recommends zoning regulations that would either require the use of fire-resistant building materials or prohibit new construction altogether in particularly high-hazard areas. And if state or local governments refuse to enact such regulations, then the federal government should step in, the report states: “If the Forest Service is expected to try to protect homes in the interface, it must have the authority to regulate building materials, access and property management.”
As for commercial logging, Taxpayers for Common Sense recommends shifting taxpayer subsidies away from logging and toward fire planning and preparedness. The organization relied on the General Accounting Office to calculate national forest timber sale program losses nationwide. According to its calculations, the Bitterroot National Forest lost $3.8 million on timber sales for fiscal years 1995 through 1997, and the Lolo National Forest lost $16.2 million in the same period. Statewide, the timber sale program lost $77.6 million on 10 national forests during those two fiscal years. “Congress and the Forest Service continue to rely on the commercial logging program to do something it will never accomplish—reduce fire risk,” the report states.
Taxpayers for Common Sense calls on the incoming president and Congress to act on its “blueprint for reform” within the first 100 days of the administration to reduce the cost of fighting wildfires and to end the practice of “throwing tax dollars at the flames.”