Flying into San Francisco last week it has become increasingly apparent that our war against wildfires is a losing game and waste of precious resources.
The vast Ferguson fire is burning in a sea of dead and dying trees in Yosemite National Park, cleaning up areas that did not burn in the immense Rim Fire a few years ago. Dozens of helicopters were ferrying water drops to the fire edge to try to cool it down, to no avail. Heavy air tankers were dropping fire retardant, but the fire burned right through the retardant lines.
Bulldozers punched mile after mile of fireline through pristine forest creating lots of future problems with unwanted off-highway access but doing almost nothing to stop the fire.
Across much of the West we are working hard to be seen to be fighting fire, even though our efforts are, for the most part, futile.
So, why spend the money, resources and accept the risks associated with this most dangerous pursuit?
The short answer is because we collectively feel that fighting fire that starts outside of controlled burn plans is necessary to protect human life and property and to mitigate fire impacts on forests. It's ironic that our suppression efforts are as often more destructive than the fires we seek to quell.
In Yosemite right now bulldozers are working night and day to establish indirect fireline, often miles away from the actual fire edge, and then we are lighting running head fires that are, in many cases, much hotter and more severe than the fires we hope to stop. To add insult to injury, we are doing this at a high cost, already over $1.6 billion, and we're only halfway through the fire season this year.
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To be seen as more economically responsible, our fire personnel whose salaries were already planned out of a management code for congressionally appropriated dollars, Wildfire Preparedness (WFPR), have backed out their costs since they were already paid before the season began.
Including this bit of deception, we are now spending 68 percent of the Forest Service budget fighting fire, an increase of 54 percent over two decades. And there is no end in sight.
The fire gravy train is too famous to ignore. Every officer who can charge to fire codes is charging to fire codes whether their salaries are prepaid or not. By charging to fire, people like law enforcement officers can and do pocket the savings, give each other cash awards for performance, buy the latest gear and vehicles, and otherwise misuse fire funding. The incentives to do so are just too strong to resist.
Our all-out aggressive attack is costing lives. We are losing dozer operators and other key personnel as a result of our decisions, and those people have families and responsibilities. We are taking casualties, and we are not changing anything about our strategies that would keep more people protected and out of harm's way.
We are not putting out these massive fires, nor will we. Instead, we are working to appear to be putting them out, loose herding them until rain and weather defeat them in a month or two. Many of them will burn into the winter.
We cannot go on under the current open checkbook policy of firefighting anywhere, anytime, just because there are flames. We need to provide point protection for homes and private property, but not by the use of very heavy air tankers costing $100,000 a day on standby and $60,000 a load of retardant. If you live where fires burn, learn to live with fire. The government cannot help you.