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Thursday, July 24th, 2014

US Forest Service Struggles to Manage Wildfires After Sequestration

By Nicolas Rochon

SUNDAY APRIL 07, 2013

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Wildfire scorches through the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge in April 2009.

The US Forest Service anticipates another difficult year ahead as rising temperatures and increased drought are expected to expose forested lands to blazing wildfires, while sequestration stretches the agency and its resources to the limit. Taking a $132 million hit in budget cuts, the agency has already declared that 500 less firefighters will be employed for the 2013 season.

When sequestration went into effect March 1, the Department of Agriculture saw nearly $2 billion disappear from their 2013 budget, of which $42 million belonged to the US Forest Service. The department’s secretary, Tom Vilsack, wrote in a letter to the Senate Committee on Appropriations that with significant cuts in budget, the Forest Service could still do things to curtail their loss, at least initially. He writes;“For example, the agency could reduce up-front costs by reducing use of exclusive use aviation contracts, 115 engines, and 10 hotshot crews. However, this could result in larger fires, which will result in higher expenditures.”

The Forest Service is considering to close as many as 670 recreation sites, including campgrounds, picnic areas and trailheads, in order to save. In total, the effects of sequestration leave the Forest Service in a tough position for 2013, as the agency is expected to work with a quarter less than the average budget needed to manage wildfires and protect the public.

One year ago

In 2012, the United States experienced the third most devastating and costly year of wildfires, as nearly 10 million acres of wilderness was burned to the ground. In a May 2012 statement, Deputy Chief James E. Hubbard wrote, “We face a unique challenge in the 2012 fire season. Based on predictive service forecasts we expect above normal significant fire potential… to result in suppression costs that exceed the 10 year average appropriation.”

With shallow pockets, the Forest Service elected to adapt their fire policy by shifting towards “aggressive initial attacks” on any fires sparked. Under this direction, the agency pushed to suppress even the smallest of fires, deterring any possibility of widespread destruction. The newly adapted strategy, however, came with much criticism.

Speaking on behalf of the watchdog group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, spokesperson Andy Stahl lamented; “At a time of both drought in the interior West and overall increases in average global temperatures, we will be seeing more fire on the landscape and not less. Yet this policy attempts to put our hands over our eyes and deny that reality… Rather than making our landscapes more fire resilient, we’re going to return to the mid-20th century approach and earlier of trying to stamp out every fire, which we can’t do.”

Over the last decade or so, wildfires have become a growing problem for the US Forest Service. Shown below is a map highlighting the locations and intensities of wildfires, which NASA deems as significant (at least 100 mega-watts).


Map revealing the locations and intensities of wildfires in the US. Image Source: Ann’s Journals Collection

Recently published by the Climate Prediction Center, a seasonal drought outlook graphic illustrates the regions of the country where drought will intensify, persist, improve or develop. As expected, states west of the Great Plains almost uniformly will see drought to either persist or intensify during 2013. The implications from this include effected crop production and diminished natural water supplies and increased wildfire potential.

Chief Deputy Tidwell confirms that “this incoming fire season [will be] almost identical to where we were a year ago at this time,” where the amount of resources allotted will force the Forest Service to prioritize certain areas over others and to delegate firefighters respectively. In a recent memo, Tidwell promises to “successfully manage fire on the landscape[… by] building on the lessons learned in 2012.”

1995 Wildland Fire Policy

The desire to let wildfires run their course, at least those that are far from humans and development, stems from their contribution to an ecosystem’s durability. Citing the Tank Fire in Utah last September, Forest Service spokesperson Loyal Clark explains that wildfires in areas holding “high amount[s] of dead fuel – meaning a lot of dry brush, leaves and other natural but highly flammable material,” effectively eliminate the fuel source and decrease the chance of future blazes. Described in the 1995 Wildland Fire Policy, wildfires are “a critical natural process [that] must be reintroduced into the ecosystem” for this exact reason.

But besides reducing the potential for future destruction, wildfires also protect native species. Forest assistant fire management officer, Brook Chadwick contends that certain ecosystems have evolved to burn every 50 or 200 years in order to maintain the established relationships with native species. For example, in an aspen grove ecosystem wildfires act to suppress the conifer tree species that compete for the same space. Chadwick states, “Over time, if fire doesn’t go through that area it will fill in with conifers.”

Deputy Chief Hubbard from the Forest Service admitted that interfering with a critical element of nature was not ideal, but that the decision was made based on the resources available. Speaking with the Associated Press, Hubbard said, “We don’t want to do this long-term… We know being able to use fire makes good sense, and we know some forests are very good at it.” But, nonetheless, the Forest Service saw their budget fall short of the minimum amount needed to manage wildfires last year and acted accordingly.

However, a former US Government Accountability Office natural resources expert, Chester Joy sees the problem to be deeper than the recent budget cuts. In a series of reports about the US Forest Service, titled “Fire Program Analysis,” Joy blames overall stagnancy in the agency’s development to be the ultimate problem. In 2001, Congress ordered the Forest Service and four other interior agencies to pool their dollars together in order to effectively appropriate budgets in areas with the highest incidence of wildfire. However, not much was accomplished: the initiative of 2001 “got strangled in the crib” and “now we’re paying the price,” Joy said to the Denver Post.

Nonetheless, today many are optimistic in the Forest Service’s return to its traditional policy. Speaking on behalf of the Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology, executive director Timothy Ingalsbee views the return as a sign of progress. In 2009, Ingalsbee lauded the Obama administration for taking the “middle path” on fire policy, where science and technology would come together to create “fire management plans that provide guidance for firefighters on how to maximize the social and ecological benefits of fire while minimizing the risks to firefighters, costs to taxpayers, and impacts to the land from fire management actions.” And with less funding to supply the necessary manpower, for many, it seems wise for the Forest Service to incorporate more science and technology in wildfire management to more efficiently allocate their limited budget.

Predicting this year’s fire season to be worse than last, local authorities are working hard to be well prepared for what lies ahead. Governor Matt Mead of Wyoming is proposing to use $60 million of the state’s “rainy day” fund to help pay for the remaining costs of last year’s season as well as the costs of the 2013 fire season. In southern California, the Fire Lookout Host Program is asking for volunteers to work eight hours a month as an in-tower lookout post.

Today, wildfire management accounts for over half of the Forest Service’s budget at $948 million, but with continued cuts from US domestic agencies, that number will surely decrease in 2013 and beyond.