The Politics of Fire Suppression: Did Bush Administration Budget Cuts Cause Bigger Wildfires?

  • Published on July 30th, 2008

Fire at night on the Trinity RiverIn 2007, the United States Forest Service (USFS) spent $1.37 billion fighting wildfires, up from $307 million ten years ago. This year, that number will be much greater due to the 2008 California Firestorm.  For example, the Lime Complex in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, which is not contained, has a current cost (7/28/08) of $38,627,355!  How will financially strapped California and the USFS pay for these fires and did these fires grow larger because of Bush administration budget cuts?

Year after year, Bush has cut funding from the USFS, yet within this budget, more money is allocated for fire management and less for fire prevention.  In February, 2008, Bush proposed decreasing fire preparedness monies by 11 percent. Although the budget calls for a $150 million increase for extinguishing blazes, prevention funding is slashed by $77 million, including a $13 million reduction in small fuels removal. Similar cuts were proposed in 2007Casey Judd, business manager for the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association, a firefighter employee group explains, “The administration still has it backward. Preparedness should be the focus, not suppression.”   Norm Dicks, D-Wash., adds, “Common sense would be that if you put more money into fuel reduction, it’s going to have an effect on having less severe fires.”  The White House response was that money could be shifted between the agency’s firefighting and fire suppression accounts, as needed.  This is exactly what concerns USFS employees with the current California wildfires.

After last week’s community meeting with the incident team, I asked an information officer about how these fires would be paid for after the season ends.  Jim responded exactly with the answer the White House gave in February, money would be shifted within the budget, and he feared that the USFS would simply become a firefighting agency if the current trend continues: No more money for fire prevention, recreation, roads, etc.  This may not come to fruition, as Congress is debating the creation of a separate federal account to handle catastrophic wildfires.  Furthermore, financially strapped California will not be left high and dry for the CalFire incidents it has managed.  FEMA will reimburse California 75% of firefighting costs this year, and the agency is providing emergency funding.  Meanwhile, California is debating tax for home owners living in fire-prone areas.

There are no simple solutions to the 2008 California wildfires, and it is hard to be prepared for the magnitude of this firestorm.  Obviously, Bush did not start these fires, but his budget cuts have contributed to how the USFS has been able to resolve the effects of a hundred years of fire suppression.  Fire preparedness should be a high budget priority. In Gore’s recent speech, the former Vice President explained it well why we should concerned:

Today, unprecedented fires are burning in California and elsewhere in the American west.

Higher temperatures lead to drier vegetation that makes kindling for mega-fires of the kind that have been raging in Canada, Greece, Russia, China, South America, Australia, and Africa. Scientists in the Department of Geophysics and Planetary Science at Tel Aviv University tell us that for every one degree increase in temperature, lightning strikes will go up another 10 percent. And it is lightning, after all, that is principally responsible for igniting the conflagration in California today.

Fire suppression and fire preparedness go hand in hand.

Image: InciWeb

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About the Author

Jennifer lives on 160 acres off-the-grid in a home built with her own two hands (and several more skilled pairs of hands) from forest fire salvaged timber. Her home is powered by a micro-hydro turbine, and she has been a vegetarian for 21 years. Jennifer graduated from Humboldt State University with a degree in art education and has been teaching art to children for over 16 years. She also spent five years teaching in a one-room schoolhouse before becoming the mother of two beautiful children. Jennifer has a Master's Degree in Early Childhood Education and is currently teaching preschool, as well as k-8 art. She enjoys writing, gardening, hiking, practicing yoga, and raising four akitas. Jennifer is the founder and editor of Eco Child's Play (http://ecochildsplay.com) "I’ve always been concerned about the earth and our impact upon it. Now that I have children, I feel compelled to raise them with green values. From organic gardening to alternative energy, my family tries to leave a small carbon footprint." Please visit my other blog: http://reallynatural.com

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  • Please. 11% budget cut or 100+ yesrs of fire suppression. What was Cal Fires budget cut? Nada. All these fires burn in areas that have not burned in over 50 years. We can't continnue to love our forests to death. Fire is essential to forest health like pruning is to roses. Global climate change, President (Insert name here) budgets, and acts of God are all easy solutions to complex problems. Unions, loggers, environmentalists all have agendas. The health of the natural systems and the welbeing of the general public are not on there agendas.

  • The Bush administration's forest policy in the West has been one of catering to the logging industry. There's no profit to be made in controlled burning to clear undergrowth; there is profit to be made in "salvage logging" after wildfires. Maybe I'm overly cynical, but when Bush came out to view the massive Biscuit fire in Oregon in 2002, the policy proposals he put forth with fellow Republican legislators were all about "salvaging" and not about preventive measures to avoid a repeat catastrophe. As a result, environmentalists spent the next four years battling logging companies over leases to log sensitive burned areas that were recovering quite well on their own. Obviously Bush has no experience of the practical question in forest management, To Burn Or Not To Burn?

  • I guess I need to add a couple of comments. Initially the USFS had one budget, and each year the Parks portion was used to fund the increased costs of fire, which is difficult to budget. Now

    the recent FLAME legislation DOES separate the cost of firefighting from the National Parks budget. That prevents the Parks budget being used every year for firefighting.

    Second, I'm not sure what funding "fire prevention" means. With all the air quality regulations, no one will let anything burn for long anywhere. Controlled burns means fire prevention to me.

  • Much as I dislike the current administration and blame them for most of our ills, I don't think they are responsible for worse fires out west or that they have fiddled with the USFS budget in a way that hurts our fire protection.

    There are several basic issues interrelated with the problem of global warming-

    > Accumulated brush which hasn't burned in 20+ years. Lack of controlled burns, and failure to let natural fires burn enough to clear out the forests

    > Increased development on the urban-wildland interface

    > Power poles over weighted with fiber-optic cable

    > Everyone everywhere expecting full fire protection at no cost

    >Even some arsonists, the lunatics who think it would be fun to set something on fire.

    It's a complicated equation. More money for more firefighters is a help, but everyone has to buy in and do their share.

    Wish I could blame it on Bush, I do blame it on bush.

    I have also written a novel about wildland firefighters in California. If you are interested, please visit http://www.kurtkamm.com

  • Why do the wildfire agencies refuse or under utilize fresh technologies to assist in wildfire control?

    Does cal Fire have a R&D office to search for new technologies? NO! Do they have a pathway to investigate new technologies? NO!

    What incentive is there to control a wildfire early if you are paid overtime for weeks.

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