This year's fierce wildfires have led
to even fiercer political battles over who is responsible for
the fires. Is it the Forest Service, which suppressed previous
fires it should have let burn? Is it loggers who left debris behind
after timber sales? Or is it environmentalists who delayed and
stopped timber sales and other projects that could reduce fuels?
The answer turns out to be "none of the above." The hazardous fuel crisis is mostly a myth. Drought, not fuel, is the chief culprit behind big fires in Colorado, Arizona, and elsewhere in the West, and perverse incentives are the main reason why Forest Service spends so much money suppressing fires it should let burn.
Forest Service stories about a hazardous fuel crisis convinced Congress to give the agency a whopping 38-percent, $1.4 billion increase in its budget last year, mostly for fire-related activities such as hazardous fuel reduction.
Hazardous fuels also excuse the Forest Service's big fire suppression program, which (including presuppression activities such as keeping firefighters on standby) nearly doubled its budget to well over $1.3 billion. Though everyone agrees federal land managers should let more fires burn, the supposed danger of hazardous fuels gives them a pretext to fight more than 99.5 percent of all wildfires.
With all this money up for grabs, it is no wonder environmental and timber interests are fighting. They each want their share of the pork.
I am not claiming there are no fuel problems on federal lands. But after studying all available data, I can't find any evidence that fuel build-ups have much to do with recent fires.
More acres burned in 2000 than in any of the previous forty years, and 2002 may burn even more. But the average number of acres burned in the last five years is no greater than the average forty years ago. Acres of burning depend mainly on droughts.
The number of firefighters killed each year more than doubled from about 8 per year in the 1950s to nearly 17 per year in the 1990s. But not because of fuels: The average number killed by fire actually declined from about 6.5 to 5.5 a year.
Where fatalities increased was in aircraft and vehicle accidentsgrowing from 1 to 6 per yearand heart attacksgrowing from one-half to 5 per year. An aging workforce and greater use of aircraft and vehicles, not fuels, are responsible for increased firefighter deaths.
Firefighting costs have flamed skyward, but for good reasons other than fuels. One is the droughts that singed the West in recent years. Another is the growing number of homes in the "wildland-urban interface" near federal lands. One study says 38 percent of new homes built in the West are in this zone, and the Forest Service spends extraordinary amounts of money trying to protect them.
The biggest reason for high firefighting costs is more basic: Congress gives the Forest Service a blank check to put out fires. This was also true before 1978, but in the 1980s Congress tried to reign in fire costs by giving the Forest Service a fixed amount each year. Deficits in one year were to be covered by surpluses in the next.
This led the Forest Service to control its costs for nearly a decade. But severe fires in 1987 and 1988 forced the agency to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars from its reforestation fund.
Begging and pleading by top Forest Service officials persuaded Congress to reimburse this money in 1990. Now the Forest Service is free to spend as much as it likes on fire suppression, and Congress always covers the deficits. No wonder firefighters say the Forest Service attacks fires by dumping money on them.
After the great fires of 2000, Congress began an even greater firestorm of spending on fuel treatments, research, community assistance, and especially suppression. Once again, we're trying to solve a problem by dumping money on it. But it won't work.
Ponderosa pine forests are ecologically adapted to frequent, low-intensity fires. But most western forests, including Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine, spruce, fir, and hemlock forests, are adapted to infrequent, high-intensity fires. The West has always had big fires and it always will have them.
The real problem with fire is the Forest Service's incentive to spend too much money. Except to protect adjacent private lands, federal land managers should let fires burn on federal lands. This will save money, save lives, and restore ecosystems.
Instead of bickering over scraps of pork, westerners should work together to end a century of mismanagement by misincentives. Only then will federal lands be truly managed for the people and not just for the bureaucracies that oversee them.
Randal O'Toole (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior economist with the Thoreau Institute (www.ti.org) and author of Reforming the Fire Service (www.ti.org/fire.html).