Last week I wrote about important new research on wildfire policy that shows that private fire insurance is an important contributor to costs and damages from wildfires.
Equally surprising is the role government firefighting agencies (GFAs) play in contributing to the size and costs of large fires, researchers say. On May 1, the Dakotas Society of American Foresters will meet in Rapid City to hear from fire experts from government and private organizations about these and other important issues in wildfire policy. Wildfire policy is dominating other land management issues and will for many years.
Private landowners own 60 percent of the nation’s productive timber land. These owners remain focused on the objective of growing timber in a sustained way. The Forest Service no longer practices land management focused on single resources like timber and grazing and has, instead, embraced a multiple-use perspective that values the forest for more than trees.
However, the forest provides clean water and recreation precisely because of trees. Moving away from investing in trees has meant a decline in managing and protecting trees from things like wildfire. Without strong timber management programs, which generated Knutson-Vandenburg funds to do forest thinning and fuels management, there is no reliable source of funding for wildfire mitigation. Fuels management is an afterthought, dependent on congressional appropriations or state legislatures for funding; usually too little, too late.
Environmental regulations further degrade GFAs’ ability to manage forestland, resulting in increasingly large areas where fuels grow unmanaged until fires start.
As a result, the principal GFAs have pivoted from land management to fire management as a way to manage land in ways that are not always helpful. Increasingly, firefighting policies emphasize starting large fires on purpose to stop the progress of large wildfires.
These policies can be self-serving to large incident management teams that need large fires that last for days to justify their structure and capabilities. In case after case, large fires are made larger to meet objectives like training fire personnel and managing fuel loading. In the 2012 Flat Fire in northern California, incident commanders hired over 50 trainees in addition to ordered resources to manage a 1,600-acre fire, with over a million dollars in added expenditures that were not needed to suppress the fire.
Fire managers at Custer State Park lit thousands of acres on fire on purpose during the Legion Lake fire. They used the fire to meet land management objectives, reintroducing fire to forests where fire had not been for many decades.
Increasingly, fire teams made up of people who do not own the land, who don’t live in the area, and who are not vested in final outcomes are given a blank check and free rein to fight fire in any way they see fit. Firefighters who take emergency action are not questioned about their actions and activities, and there is no meaningful oversight to moderate or change decisions taken in the heat of battle. The discretionary function privilege of the Federal Tort Claims Act shields government agents from the consequences of bad policy decisions.
Private landowners suffer who manage their lands and forests to be fire worthy. Fire teams often use well managed private ground as anchor points for burning out to stop fires on unmanaged land. This often results in the loss of years of investment, a loss for which there is no compensation to the landowner, and no consequence for fire teams.
Because landowners and GFAs are no longer connected by shared goals and local focus, there is no input from landowners in modifying suppression activities, or in meaningful participation in suppression efforts.