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The paradox of fire policy

For the last week the Idaho Statesman has run a three part series written by reporter Heath Druzin and I about the paradox of fire policy. Based on the research of Forest Service fire behavior expert Jack Cohen we showed that fire does not burn into communities as a ball of fire but almost always as a ground fire. The homes would not burn down if they were tended by homeowners or firefighters after clearing flammable brush and trees out 100 feet and if equipped  with a fireproof roof. But instead the federal government tries to keep fires out of adjacent communities by fighting near all fires on public lands — around 80,000 blazes each year — with  just 327 generally allowed to burn. Out of the 9.8 million acres that burned across the country last year, only about 430,000 acres burned without suppression, in what managers call "wildland fire use" blazes. Fire suppression costs have risen 6.5 times in a decade to $1.86 billion last year. At the same time, funding to make private homes and communities safer has dropped by more than 30 percent since 2001 - to less than $80 million in 2008 - and more cuts are proposed for 2009. This is the paradox of wildland fire management in America: Most scientists and fire managers agree that fire is a healthy and necessary part of the forest, and that fighting these blazes serves only to build up fuels and boost the size and frequency of catastrophic fires. But federal agencies keep attacking almost every wildfire, many deep in the woods, and the rising cost of suppression diverts money from protecting homes and communities - which can be saved with the right, and often inexpensive, measures. The result: Billions of taxpayer dollars are spent on what most experts agree is the wrong approach. The lives of firefighters are put in danger on fires that don't need to be fought. And homes are left vulnerable, their fate often decided by wind direction and the availability of federal firefighters to protect private property. Forest managers face jittery home and business owners, local officials and even governors and Congress members. The pressure to fight fires makes it easier to spend millions of dollars on fires that their training and science say would be better left to burn. The Bush administration sought to counter the cultural and political incentives to spend money on firefighting by forcing forest managers to choose between firefighting and programs like recreation and even fire prevention. But fire suppression costs kept climbing, and now Congress is pressing for a new dedicated fund that will make even more money available to fight fires - and eliminate any financial incentive to make different decisions on the ground. You can read our series at http://www.idahostatesman.com/fire/ ———- Rocky Barker is the author of Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and environmental reporter for the Idaho Statesman.