Worsening Wildfire Seasons Are Taxing The Forest Service

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An airplane used to fight wildfires flies over a blaze that flared up near Omak, Wash., on Thursday. (AP)
An airplane used to fight wildfires flies over a blaze that flared up near Omak, Wash., on Thursday. (AP)

This has been one of the worst — and most expensive — wildfire seasons ever in the Northwest, where climate change and a history of suppressing wildfires has created a dangerous buildup of fuels.

With fires burning hotter and more intense, there are renewed calls to change how the federal government pays to fight the biggest fires.

"These large and intense fires are a natural disaster in much the same way a hurricane or a tornado or a flood is," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says. "And they ought to be funded as such through the emergency funding of FEMA."

But behind what seems like another battle over which agency should pay for what, is something much bigger and more complex. The U.S. Forest Service, part of the Agriculture Department, simply isn't set up to deal with these new types of mega-fires that are transforming the West.

To understand this, remember that wildfires have been intertwined with the Forest Service since just a few years after it was created. The summer of 1910 was later characterized as "The Big Blow Up." Coincidentally, like this year, the worst fires then were in the Northwest and northern Rockies, where more than three million acres burned and at least 85 people died.

Firefighters extinguish hotpots after a wildfire, part of the Okanogan Complex, swept through the area on Saturday near Okanogan, Wash.
Firefighters extinguish hotpots after a wildfire, part of the Okanogan Complex, swept through the area on Saturday near Okanogan, Wash.

In the years after, the Forest Service implemented its now infamous "10 a.m. policy." Every wildfire had to be put out by 10 a.m. the following day.

They got really good at it.

"There are a lot of people who refer to the U.S. Forest Service as the 'U.S. Fire Service' because fire has become such a part of their mission," says Michael Kodas, a wildfire expert at the University of Colorado.

Today, the wildfire season is much longer — 78 days longer than even in the 1970s, for instance — and the conditions out on the land are extraordinary. This is taxing the Forest Service to the breaking point. The agency is now spending more than $1 billion a year to fight fires, and just a fraction of that for every other important ecological job the agency is responsible for such as watershed restoration, tree thinning or recreation projects.

"Part of the problem here is, basically, overly ambitious expectations of what the Forest Service and what our wild land firefighting organization overall can really accomplish." Kodas says.

It's now widely known that prior wildfire suppression policies are partly to blame for the current conditions. Yet the impacts of the worsening wildfires on the agency's budget are telling, if startling.

This year, more than half of the entire Forest Service budget will go to fire suppression, compared to about 16 percent in 1995. More recently, the agency has reported a 114 percent increase in fire suppression staff and a 38 percent drop in the number of people who do all the other work. As fire seasons become year round in some Western states, the Forest Service has hired a lot more professional firefighters and a lot fewer wildlife biologists or technicians who conduct prescribed burns that help prevent wildfires.

In some ways, the Forest Service set itself up for this. Retired and former Forest Service officials say that as logging declined in the West, the agency made its name as the firefighting leader on Capitol Hill. Today this is how most Americans have heard of the Forest Service, and wildfires are often how the agency justifies its existence to lawmakers.

Firefighting has also gotten more expensive — and political — with homes and whole cities now built out into the woods.

Dick Mangan, a retired Forest Service fire official and now firefighting consultant in Missoula, Mont., says the 24-hour news cycle has made it harder to get smarter about long-term forest management.

"All of a sudden somebody's going to be sticking a camera in there almost forcing the issue, socially and politically, that we take some kind of action to try to protect these places," Mangan says. "And that generally involves an awful lot of expense."

In Oregon on Friday, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack warned that the federal government is already spending more than $150 million a week fighting wildfires. The Forest Service says federal, state and local fire teams typically control all but 2 percent of the tens of thousands of wildfires that ignite every year. It's that last 2 percent that can turn into the big, catastrophic blazes such as Washington's Okanagan Complex fire.

Vilsack told NPR that the Forest Service is paying its firefighting bills at the expense of other programs that could help prevent future fires.

"At the same time, members of Congress and senators come to us and say, 'We want more work being done in our forests, we want more timber treated,' " Vilsack said.

But wildfires are still relatively small natural disasters compared with a big hurricane or earthquake. There's widespread doubt that Congress will act on changing fire budgets this summer, so the Forest Service may be stuck as the "Fire Service" for some time.

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