The topic of wildfire raises the level of awareness of our forests. Some of this is good. People become aware and then they are compelled to act. Unfortunately, Iím not sure if they are going to act in the right manner.
In the fire-prone forests of the Intermountain West, fire is part of life. These forests have adapted to survive regular fire intervals for centuries. Ponderosa pines and western larch are prime examples of species that are specifically capable of withstanding significant fire. Unfortunately, some of our actions have put even the most capable trees at risk. These actions and subsequent inactions have put entire forests and massive ecosystems at risk.
The U.S. Forest Service and other agencies across the country started putting out every fire as soon as they could. At least they used to. When those fires were put out, the debris those fires may have burned has now built up. Those ponderosa pine and western larch trees were widely spaced in the past. Few trees grew tall enough to even get close to their limbs. As these fire crews put these fires out, those conditions changed. The brush built up, the other trees, grand fir, Douglas fir, small ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, and others new grew taller. Instead of a few hundred trees per acre, now there are thousands. The entire forest canopy is touching side to side and more importantly from the forest floor to the tallest trees.
Putting out the fires is good, especially when the fire threatens homes, communities, and other valuable resources. Those actions would have been fine if they had come back in and managed those forests. Land managers should have planned to thin trees that didnít belong there. Making sure that the tree spacing allowed the fire to reach the forest floor and stay there. Maybe even thin the forest, do some logging, and then come back when the season is appropriate to use prescribed fire to remove undesirable material. Unfortunately, the vast majority of land received inaction after the fires were put out.
Now we find ourselves with forests that are not only overstocked, but they are dead and dying. They are absolute tinderboxes of fuel. Ready for dry lighting, hot days, and high winds to turn what were once green forests into black and gray wastelands.
To make matters worse, the Forest Service is incentivized to keep this happening. Funding for fires is almost unlimited while forest management funds keep getting cut or held at levels that are pathetic. In 2015 on the Colville National Forest, which is only 1.1 million acres, our government spent over $300 million fighting fires. The entire annual budget for the forest hovers around $15 million. Many of the people that are tasked with managing the forests, or at least doing the planning so projects can get put out for bid, are training to fight the fires. When the fires come many are away for months.
We need to take a close look at how and why these fires are funded. So many people are fired up (pardon the pun) about getting fire funding fixed so we can stop ďfire borrowing.Ē The USFS borrows money from other budgets and then hopes some sort of special funding source pays it back. Itís a strange system that is certainly broken. We arenít asking enough questions. Like why we are spending so much money on fires and seeing little to no results? How is this money being spent? How much do we spend on complex fires when they burn uncontrollably? If itís too out of control to fight, what the hell are all those firefighters doing? How much are we paying for equipment to sit in fields and never go to work?
For some time, I have been noticing things. They add up to some interesting observations. Here are some of the things I have noticed and then Iíll provide my theory. Resources get dispersed sparingly until fires get very big, and then spending is unlimited. ďAfter all itís a disaster, how can you put a price on that?Ē Crews from all over the country get shifted to places they donít know and have little to no connection with.
These fire camps look like summer camps. Food trucks, ice cream trucks, tents covering entire school playfields or repurposed ag lands. Stories of things like having no new chains for chainsaws, but unlimited new chainsaws. Gear from each fire like hats, sweatshirts, T-shirts, and who knows what else worn like badges of honor. Lack of coordination between crews where local equipment operators are asked to stand down or in some cases have their equipment moved to other parts of the region. These are enough to paint a picture.
This theory is a situation where wildfire funding is unlimited and we have no incentives to change it and no accountability. A culture has been created that glorifies the forest firefighting. Itís addictive and lucrative for these workers. Some work very hard; others work the system hard. Does the Forest Service really want to solve this issue? Actions say no. Does Congress realize that we get almost nothing from spending all this money on complex fires? What would happen if we cut the funding to the complex fires by half? Would there be a difference in fire behavior?
Based on the example on the Colville National Forest from 2015, what if we had capped the spending at $200 million and put $50 million into the annual budget for management? Would the long-term effects be better or worse for our forests?
Iím not suggesting that we abandon firefighting. Iím demanding that we look at this holistically. How can we be scraping the bottom of the barrel to find money to manage our forests and expect a different outcome? We allow unlimited money to fight fires that are the result of fighting fires and not managing our forests. This is equivalent to using credit cards to pay off other credit cards and expecting one day to be out of debt.
We are smarter and better than this. We need data and maps to figure out how to reduce our fuel loads and we need to do it immediately, even if itís at the expense of fire funding in the short term.
Russ Vaagen is vice president at Vaagen Bros. Lumber in Colville, Washington. He writes at www.theforestblog.com.