Forest Service firefighting costs rising; experts say agency practices up the price

Saturday, December 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) _ When lighting struck the gnarled skeleton of a tree in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness late last summer, it ignited what turned out to be a small fire, 279 acres, but resulted in a big bill _ $2.2 million.

At a cost of $7,899 per acre, the Craggie Fire, 35 miles west of Grants Pass, was one of the most expensive of the summer for the U.S. Forest Service _ seven times the national average of $1,164 per acre.

The Forest Service blames rising costs on the buildup of underbrush and other fuel due to a century of putting out too many fires, a practice managers say they are working to change.

Overall, Forest Service spending on putting out fires shows an upward trend. Despite periodic efforts to control costs and reduce fire danger over the past 24 years, the cost per acre, in year 2000 dollars and adjusted for inflation, has increased 63 percent.

One reason is that the Wildland Fire Situation Analysis, which the Forest Service uses to decide how aggressively to fight a fire, does not factor in any balancing benefits _ safety, ecological or economic _ of letting the fire burn.

The only real check appears to be the availability of resources. After 2000, the worst wildfire season in 50 years, Congress provided more money than ever before _ $1.9 billion. That paid for twice as many helicopters as last year and 5,000 extra federal firefighters, as well as more prevention, rehabilitation and research.

``If I was in business, I'd be out of business,'' said Harry Croft, deputy director of the Forest Service's National Fire Plan. ``Everywhere I've been, everyone says the same thing, the system is broken, we've got to change it. Whether they are going to want to fix it is another issue.''

Croft said the National Fire Plan for this year makes a start, with the $469 million budgeted for Forest Service fire suppression representing the first realistic level ever. Only $122 million was appropriated for fire suppression in 2000, and the amount spent climbed to $1.1 billion.

Despite the increased appropriation for this year, the Forest Service still overspent its fire suppression budget by $230 million.

When it started at the turn of the century, the Forest Service's primary mission was fighting fire. After World War II, that mission switched to timber production as returning GIs wanted to build homes.

It shifted again in the 1990s as lawsuits by environmentalists forced the Forest Service to drastically cut back logging to protect fish and wildlife. Today, firefighting accounts for more than half of the agency's $3 billion budget.

``Fighting fires built up into part of its institutional culture. Most of the timber cutting, if it is going to be done, is being done for fire reasons,'' said Robert Nelson, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Maryland and author of, ``A Burning Issue: A Case for Abolishing the U.S. Forest Service.''

The Forest Service decided in 1926 that all fires should be held to 10 acres. That was updated in 1935 with the 10 o'clock rule: Every fire was to be controlled by 10 a.m. the next day. Under those rules, the annual wildfire toll fell from 39 million acres in the 1930s to 3.2 million acres in the 1970s, but then it began to climb.

Scientists say the practice had been cultivating unnatural forests, thick with small trees and susceptible to bigger fires. The Forest Service started using controlled burns to clear the clutter, but Congress appropriated little money and people living nearby didn't like the risk.

``There seems to be a political calculus that spending money to prevent fires has no political benefit ... But spending money to stop fire has a tremendous amount of political benefit,'' said Randal O'Toole, an economist examining wildfire spending for the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

The Forest Service has always had a blank check when it comes to fighting fire, with the exception of a few years in the 1980s, O'Toole said. Andy Stahl of the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics said the agency has gotten in the habit of stretching that blank check to cover other expenses, such as personnel.

Croft would like to eliminate the practice, but resistance is deep. He has analyzed dozens of fires, looking for ways to save money, right down to bottled water.

It turned out the cost of bottled water was minuscule compared to helicopters. And when people drink out of creeks, they get sick. So bottled water stayed.

Despite costing $4,111 to $9,115 per hour on the Craggie fire, Croft said heavy helicopters can be tremendously effective with their 1,000-gallon water buckets, as long as turnaround times are under five minutes. The cost adds up quickly. On Craggie, heavy helicopters accounted for 14 percent of the total.

``The tough part of this is, how much risk will you take playing with a fire?'' Croft said, especially in the wake of a controlled burn that got away near Los Alamos, N.M., last year and left 400 families homeless.

Though critical of the Forest Service, Nelson acknowledged that more spending this year could have been responsible for avoiding a repeat of the fire toll of 2000. However, the underlying problem remains, Nelson said: Forests are hungry for fire, and putting them out now costs money later.

``It seems like you are spending your money on what caused the problem in the first place,'' he said.