Skip to content

About PERC

All Areas of Focus

All Research

U.S. Firefighting Policy,

Billings Gazette
September 1, 2007

By Alison Berry

BOZEMAN – Idaho, Utah, Oregon, Montana. Once again, the West wears a shroud of gray ugly smoke this summer. Huge, spectacular clouds of smoke billow thousands of feet into the sky and then settle into the valleys, the lives, and the lungs of all who live here.

Wildfires are no longer news so much as a fact of life, and federal forest managers need to recognize this fact and deal with it more effectively. Not only do they need new policies regarding fire suppression, they need budgets that will provide incentives to restore functioning ecosystems. The mistakes of the 20th century should not be repeated in the 21st.

For most of the 20th century, U.S. federal fire policy focused on suppressing all fires in national forests. The goal was to protect timber resources and rural communities, but this policy ignored the ecological importance of fire. North American forests have evolved with fire for thousands of years. Fire returns nutrients to soils, reduces thick undergrowth that can fuel a fire, encourages growth of older fire-resistant trees, and promotes establishment of new seedlings.

Dense forest fuels
Without fire and exacerbated by decreasing federal timber harvests since the late 1980s, many forests are now uncharacteristically dense. These dense forests fuel devastating fires that burn at a much higher intensity than historic levels, killing entire forest stands.

Meanwhile, more people are living and building homes near forested areas, in the One problem in any attempt to restore fire to forest ecosystems is funding. About 22 percent of the Forest Service budget for 2008 is dedicated to fire suppression. Furthermore, emergency funding to fight fires is virtually unlimited. Emergency funds are generally borrowed from other projects during the fire season, and then reimbursed by Congress once the smoke has cleared.

Since there is no defined limit to this emergency funding, there is little discretion in spending. Firefighters have admitted to spending more money attempting to preserve structures – like mining shacks and hunter’s cabins – than the structures themselves were worth.

Therefore, a problem that the Forest Service created – excess fuels – prevents appropriate burning, and so the problem grows. According to Forest Service estimates, almost 70 percent of federal forests (151 million acres) are in need of some fuels restoration treatment, and more than 60 million acres, an area the size of Oregon, are at high risk of catastrophic wildfire.

One way to restore fire to forest ecosystems and to eliminate hazardous fuels could be to allow some wildfires in remote areas to burn, as long as they pose no threat to communities or private land. This approach also is far less costly than trying to put the fires out. By some estimates, per-acre costs for monitoring these burns are 80 percent less than fire suppression costs.

Wildland-urban risks
Of course in the wildland-urban interface, the risks to life and property make wildfires too dangerous. A fuels reduction program using prescribed burns or mechanical removal could alleviate the problem before a fire flares up. These treatments can be expensive, however, and they must be ongoing – as fuels will grow back in the absence of wildfire.

The current system, under which virtually unlimited funding is provided for emergency situations, undermines preventative and restorative approaches to fire management. Instead, the Forest Service budget should be reformed to reward the prevention of these costly emergency situations. With the right incentives, management will focus on approaches that restore fire to remote forests and reduce fuel loads in the wildland urban interface. The result would be functioning forest ecosystems and safer communities – a step forward into the 21st century.

Alison Berry is a research fellow at PERC, the Property and Environment Research Center, in Bozeman. She holds a masters degree in forestry from the University of Montana.

Related Content