Once again, large forest fires are covering the national forests and other federal lands in the West -- and everyone knows it is because past Forest Service fire suppression policies have led to a dangerous accumulation of fuels. That's why Congress is giving the Forest Service and other agencies $400 million a year to treat hazardous fuels -- twenty times the amount they spent a decade ago.
That's also why the Forest Service continues to suppress 99.7 percent of all fires. Even though everyone knows it should let more fires burn, built-up fuels are so dangerous that it doesn't dare let fires burn. So Congress has more than doubled the budgets for fire preparedness (such as having firefighters on standby) and firefighting.
But is the story about hazardous fuels true? Thoreau Institute researcher Randal O'Toole spent a year reviewing data about scores of recent fires and couldn't find any evidence that hazardous fuels are responsible for those fires, firefighter fatalities, or increased fire suppression costs. Instead, droughts are the cause of the fires, new technologies and an aging workforce are the causes of increased firefighter fatalities, and perverse incentives to waste money are the main cause of increased firefighting costs.
Nor is it true that a scientifically managed program of prescribed fire will reduce future fires and firefighting costs in the West. Unlike the Southeast, where most forests are ecologically adapted to frequent, low-intensity fires, most forests of the West are adapted to infrequent, high-intensity fires. The West has always had big fires and it always will have them.
This means that the $2.9 billion a year that Congress is dumping on federal fire programs is mostly wasted. Naturally, the Forest Service perpetuates the hazardous fuels myth so that it can get those funds. But the long-term solution to fire problems is to spend less money, not more.
All of this information is detailed in a new, 53-page report published by the Thoreau Institute. You can download any of several versions of the report below.