USFS Fights Fire with Fire

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Some rights reserved.

Forest fires are often natural, and small fires can benefit forest ecosystems by burning off dead timber. Since 1995, U.S. agencies have allowed wildfires to burn freely within the boundaries of wilderness areas, where most fires stay. Those fires that do escape wilderness areas often do not threaten many structures, so they are inexpensive to manage. Fire suppression – the policy from the early 20th century until experiments re-introducing fire began in the 1970s – makes management more costly because forests grow over the patchwork of burnt-out areas that check the spread of wildfires.

So why did the U.S. Forest Service decide to reverse its policy and attack every fire regardless of size? Two changes – one environmental and another political – contributed to forestry chief James Hubbard’s decision. First, the Forest Service’s firefighting budget, at $948 million, is $500 million less than it was last year, when it overspent by $114 million. Second, the hot, dry conditions that have prevailed recently are likely to continue, leaving more and more forest susceptible to fires. So the Forest Service is worried that if a small and normally harmless fire burns out of control, fighting it will blow the agency’s whole budget.

Hubbard told OnEarth, whose article can be found here, that financial pressure is the main rationale for the change. Fires are more common than they were in the past, and cost more to suppress, which Hubbard attributes to climate change and unchecked sprawl driven by population growth. From 2002-2011, fires burned almost double the annual acreage than the previous decade.

The OnEarth article expresses skepticism on even the short-term prospects of the policy change on saving the budget. Even Hubbard agrees that allowing wildfire in wilderness makes long-term financial sense. But Niel Lawrence of the Natural Resources Defense Council has another theory: fire suppression today guarantees more fire in the future, and when images of brave firefighters and slurry bombers protecting homes and forests headline cable news, Congress will open its purse for the Forest Service. Whether it is a political story or an ecological story, or both, wildfires are poised to remain in the headlines in the near future.

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