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The Odd Politics Of Fighting Wildfires

As wildfires plague much of the American West, one must ask, Who is paying to put them out? The answer is largely the American taxpayer. By that, we mean the taxpayers of Maryland, Tennessee and New Jersey — as well as those in California, Oregon, Washington and Montana, the states where the worst fires now rage.

Given this reality, we can also wonder at Western conservatives’ passion for transferring federal lands to the states or into private hands. Do they really want the cost of protecting this considerable acreage placed on the shoulders of their locals?

Some Western politicians, such as Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, have thought this through. His state owns 5.2 million acres — the size of Massachusetts — and a good part of it is in flames.

“I could spend $40 million on fires alone,” Bullock, a Democrat, recently told me.

Western conservatives should know that other conservatives are asking why U.S. taxpayers are spending so darn much money putting out their fires. And they are joined by environmentalists, who argue that the federal government’s enthusiasm for suppressing wildfires encourages bad land planning and unnecessary tree removal.

About two-thirds of the cost of fighting wildfires comes out of the federal coffers, and the U.S. Forest Service accounts for the lion’s share. Its fire suppression activities include both firefighting and fire prevention. For the first time this year, the Forest Service will devote over half its budget to wildfire suppression. By 2025, large wildfires could consume two-thirds of that budget, according to a new report by the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the agency.

A warming climate is adding size and intensity to the blazes — making them more expensive to put out. And there’s a stiff human price: Three Forest Service firefighters died recently trying to contain a wildfire in north-central Washington.

But much of the Forest Service’s fattening bill for suppressing wildfires comes from the rising costs of protecting isolated residences in the so-called wildland-urban interface. About 10 million houses were built in fire-prone rural areas over the last decade — on top of 6 million in the 1990s.

The building continues apace because of a growing desire for homes with nice views and proximity to national forests. And because the feds deal with the worst fires, the state and local governments approving this development have little incentive to curb it.

The federal government also has a variety of post-fire rehab programs. One helps rebuild the homes, 75 percent of which are uninsured or underinsured.

“Many say the insurance companies should be creating a moral hazard when they insure homes on the interface,” Sue Stewart, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was formerly with the Forest Service, told me. Homeowners in fire-prone zones should bear the costs of the added risk, not unlike those on flood plains.

Local governments can also assume more responsibility, writes Randal O’Toole at the conservative Cato Institute. One suggestion is “turning firefighting over to the states and paying the states the same fixed annual amounts per acre that private forest land owners pay.”

O’Toole speaks approvingly of the federal Bureau of Land Management’s policy of letting enormous wildfires in Alaska burn largely unattended.

In Berkeley, California, meanwhile, angry environmentalists are protesting a plan to lessen fire hazards by leveling over 400,000 eucalyptus and other trees in the East Bay hills. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has offered to write the check.

In assessing federal fire suppression programs, one must distinguish between mindless budget cutting and thoughtless spending. As we can see, not always an easy call.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

Photo: Firefighters work to dig a fire line on the Rocky Fire in Lake County, California July 30, 2015. REUTERS/Max Whittaker

Wildfires Are Increasing, But Funds To Battle Them Are Shrinking

By Joseph O’Sullivan, The Seattle Times

OLYMPIA, Wash. — It’s an unsettling trend: Wildfires are becoming larger and more frequent, and money to prevent and fight them continues to be scarce.

As wildfires blaze across Washington, state and federal officials are running out of firefighting dollars. That doesn’t mean the firefighters will turn around the engines and head home, leaving the people of Okanogan County or the Colville Indian Reservation on their own. Money gets pulled from other places, often fire-prevention budgets, a practice that for years has limited the thinning of forests that could help fires from spreading.

“The enduring problem is the under-appropriation of firefighting funding and the raid on these other accounts,” says Jim Ogsbury, executive director of the Western Governors’ Association.

With climate change making the American West hotter and drier, and continuing budget crunches in the statehouse and Congress, preventing and fighting fires like the Carlton complex in Okanogan County could become more difficult.

As states continue to battle larger and nastier fires, some are beginning to ask: How do we pay to prevent and stop these blazes?

Washington state has already spent $91 million fighting wildfires this summer, according to a request for emergency assistance from Gov. Jay Inslee to the federal government. If approved, federal disaster aid could help people who lost homes and money for damaged roads and debris removal. But it won’t reimburse the state for firefighting costs.

That means that the state’s wildfire-fighting money for the budget year starting in July likely has already run out, according to Mary Verner of the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
Money needed to fight wildfires between now and next June comes from state reserves unless or until the Legislature approves extra funding, according to Verner.

The average wildfire season in Washington scorches, on average, 70,000 acres. But this year, from the Wenatchee National Forest to across Okanogan County and as far east as Spokane County, fires have torched more than 350,000 acres.

More than 340 homes have been lost to the Carlton complex wildfire, the largest in state recorded history.

It takes manpower and equipment on a military scale to fight these fires: thousands of foot soldiers, plus commanders, planners, cooks, pilots, and latrine cleaners.

Just getting the heavy equipment going can fill a ledger. It costs $1,876 to deploy and staff a large four-wheel-drive fire engine for a single day shift, according to state cost guidelines. Bulldozers and excavators to help build fire lines can cost up to $3,448 and $2,252, respectively, for a single shift.

Firefighters and crew workers earn between $14 and $18 an hour, depending on experience. A sawyer with a chain saw will cost $862 a day. And none of this counts the money to keep helicopters and tanker planes aloft to fight fire from the sky, or the logistics staff to run the fire camps.

That equipment could get called up more often. A report put out this year by the independent research nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists called “Playing with Fire” lays out the evidence.
The number of big wildfires on federal lands in the 11 western states rose from about 140 during the 1980s to about 250 in the 2000s — a 79 percent increase.

And since the 1970s, the western wildfire season has expanded across the calendar, from an average of five months in the 1970s to about seven months now.

An increase in temperatures — which are going up more rapidly in the American West than the average around the world — will help fuel larger and more severe fires, according to the report.

As a result, the six worst fire seasons on record since 1960 have happened since 2000, according to report by Headwaters Economics, a research institution that studies land development in the West.

People point to the costs of fighting wildfires, but studies show the damage left by fires is between two to 30 times what it cost to fight them, according to Rachel Cleetus, senior climate economist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Left behind in the trails of flames, Cleetus says, are property damage, loss of tourism, scarred land prone to flooding, damaged roads, and utility lines, and the health effects of wildfire smoke, which can drift across the wind for hundreds of miles.

Agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management partner up with states to help fight fires. But The Associated Press reported last week that the federal government’s wildfire budget will likely run out by the end of August.

This isn’t the first year fighting such fires have been treated as an afterthought. It has been years since the money budgeted by Congress has fully covered federal firefighting costs.

When that money runs out, those agencies pull funds from their fire-prevention programs that would go toward tree-thinning and forest restoration. When forests and other areas aren’t trimmed, those dead limbs and branches pile up and become fuel for the next fire. This abundance of fire fuel, experts say, stems from a lack of prevention and overly aggressive wildfire control in earlier generations.

“What’s created is this Catch-22,” said Ogsbury. “And as a consequence fires are becoming more catastrophic.”

Photo via WikiCommons

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Yosemite Park Fire Threatens Famous Giant Sequoia Trees

Los Angeles (AFP) — A fire raging in California’s Yosemite National Park threatens a grove of famous giant sequoia trees.

The blaze, which began on Saturday, has scorched some 3,545 acres of the popular tourist spot and is about one-third contained, a spokeswoman for the Yosemite Fire Information call center told AFP.

Some 830 firefighters and seven helicopters have been mobilized but the inferno is still moving toward the northwest, encroaching on Merced Grove — home to some of the park’s cherished giant sequoias.

Towering sequoias, a type of redwood coniferous tree, include some of the largest trees in the world.

Complicating efforts to extinguish the fire are an intense California drought and temperatures that have soared past 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

While the park remains open to the public, the blaze has forced the closure of three camp sites and some sections of Highway 120.

Authorities have allowed residents of the small town of Foresta — evacuated after two houses were engulfed by flames — to return to their homes, but warned that a “potential threat” to the community still exists.

Last year, a gigantic blaze — the third largest in Californian history — ripped through a swath of Yosemite, burning 257,314 acres of the park that welcomes millions of visitors each year.

Dubbed the “Rim Fire,” it affected an area more than five times the size of the U.S. capital city Washington, but did not claim any lives.

AFP Photo/Mladen Antonov

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Fire Near Yosemite Turns Up Heat On California Wildfire Season

By Lisa M. Krieger, San Jose Mercury News

SAN JOSE, Calif. — For the second year in a row, flames in Yosemite National Park are turning up the heat on California’s wildfire season, fueled by one of the most severe droughts in decades.
But despite dangerously dry conditions, tens of thousands of lightning strikes and a remarkably early start, aggressive firefighting has helped keep this year’s fire season surprisingly mild — so far.

As of Sunday, a total of 51,903 acres have burned in California this year, slightly below the 60,379 five-year average for this time of year, according to totals from the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire.

But nobody is resting easy in and around Yosemite, where the El Portal fire threatened communities west of the park and the storied giant sequoias at the Merced Grove. The El Portal fire — like the dozens of other fires this year — ignited quickly like a matchstick.

“That thing ripped up 2,000 acres in an afternoon. That’s a big run,” said San Jose State University meteorologist Craig Clements, who traveled to Yosemite to study the fire.

Fires this time of the year tend to spread more slowly.

“Usually, in the early part of the season, there’s more moisture in the vegetation. But the fires we’re seeing are growing rapidly, moving rapidly, which is very challenging,” said Sonoma-based fire captain Amy Head, a Cal Fire spokeswoman.

The soft humid skies lingering over much of California offer little relief — and can throw down dangerous spears of lightning into super-dry forests.

This is California’s monsoon season, when a high pressure system over the desert Southwest expands north, bringing thunderstorms to the Sierra.

But the rain evaporates as it falls, providing little relief to fire danger.

“You felt just small drops on your skin,” said SJSU meteorology graduate student Richard Bagley, who was also at Yosemite earlier this week. “There was zero accumulation.”

Even though the rain doesn’t hit the ground, flashes of lightning do, and they are the most common cause of California wildfires. And when a storm has passed, firefighters worry about what they call “holdover fires.”

“Lightning can hit a tree and just hang out,” particularly after rain, said Brenda Belongie, a meteorologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Redding. “It can smolder for several weeks. Think of a long, slow, glowing ember. Then, when it warms up and dries, a fire emerges,” she said.

But humans are to blame for some of this month’s most destructive wildfires. A car driven through high, dry grass July 25 started the Sand Fire in the Sierra foothills east of Sacramento. It destroyed 19 homes and 47 outbuildings, burning 4,240 acres and by Tuesday was 85 percent contained.

Car exhaust from suspected marijuana farmers ignited the Bully Fire on July 11 in Shasta County, killing one person and destroying 20 structures and burning more than 12,600 acres.

No cause has been determined for the El Portal fire, which by Tuesday night, had burned through more than 3,000 acres and was 19 percent contained. Residents were allowed to return home to Foresta and El Portal on Tuesday after evacuating earlier this week.

Ignition starts in tinder-dry brush and timber, accumulated over three years of drought.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, research from the federal government’s National Fuel Moisture database shows that vegetation is drier than normal. Samples of wild plants show 49 percent moisture content in the Mount Diablo area where 61 percent is average. In the Los Gatos mountains, moisture content is 63 percent; 68 is average. Sixty percent is considered a “critical,” or dangerous, level.

AFP Photo/Mike Mcmillan

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