Saturday, July 26, 2008

As wildfires get wilder, the costs of fighting them are untamed

Los Angeles Times: It was day 42 of the Zaca fire. A tower of white smoke reached miles into the blue sky above the undulating ridges of Santa Barbara's backcountry. Helicopters ferried firefighters across the saw-toothed terrain and bombed fiery ridges with water. Long plumes of red retardant trailed from the belly of a DC-10 air tanker. Bulldozers cut defensive lines through pygmy forests of chaparral.

…On this single day, Aug. 14, fighting the Zaca cost more than $2.5 million. By the time the blaze was out nearly three months later, the bill had reached at least $140 million, making it one of the most expensive wildfire fights ever waged by the U.S. Forest Service.

A century after the government declared war on wildfire, fire is gaining the upper hand. From the canyons of California to the forests of the Rocky Mountains and the grasslands of Texas, fires are growing bigger, fiercer and costlier to put out. And there is no end in sight.

Across the country, flames have blackened an average of 7.24 million acres a year this decade. That's twice the average of the 1990s. Wildfires burned more than 9 million acres last year and are on pace to match that figure in 2008. At 240,207 acres, the Zaca was the second-biggest wildland blaze in California's modern record. But nationally, it wasn't even the largest of 2007. A conflagration on the Idaho-Nevada border charred more than twice as much land.

…Wildfire costs are busting the Forest Service budget. A decade ago, the agency spent $307 million on fire suppression. Last year, it spent $1.37 billion. Fire is chewing through so much Forest Service money that Congress is considering a separate federal account to cover the cost of catastrophic blazes. In California, state wildfire spending has shot up 150% in the last decade, to more than $1 billion a year.

"We've lost control," said Stephen J. Pyne, a professor of life sciences at Arizona State University and the nation's preeminent fire historian. This "ecological insurgency," as Pyne calls it, has varied causes. Drought is parching vegetation. Rising temperatures associated with climate change are shrinking mountain snowpacks, giving fire seasons a jump-start by drying out forests earlier in the summer. The spread of invasive grasses that burn more readily than native plants is making parts of the West ever more flammable. The government's long campaign to tame wildfire has, perversely, made the problem worse.

...."There are three things that are driving it: climate, development, fuel loads.. . . . And they're all unequivocally going in the wrong direction," said Geoffrey Donovan, a Forest Service researcher in Portland, Ore. "I don't see how anybody could think we're anywhere close to being at the worst of this."....

The Zaca fire, shot by John Newman ("from the interagency," whatever that means), Wikimedia Commons


firefighter08 said...

Brian -
I live in Malibu CA and live through fires every year. There is no single answer to the complex wildland fire problem, but it is going to get worse in coming years. Every year is now “unusually dry” and that’s not going to change. Congress can allocate more dollars to firefighting (and save the National Park’s budget), but more firefighters isn’t the sole answer either.
There must be some controlled burns, and maybe some “uncontrolled” burns to clear out decades of dead brush and trees killed by insects. Most important, people must take responsibility on the urban/wildland interface and CLEAR A DEFENSIBLE SPACE. Finally, I think we are coming to the time when people in the interface are going to have to bear some of the cost of fire protection.
I am a wildland fire expert. If you are interested in a novel about wildland firefighters, go to

firefighter08 said...

By the way. The name of my novel, and a phrase used by wildland firefighters, is One Foot In The Black.

Do you know what that means?
Hint: it has to do with carbon.
Kurt Kamm