October 19, 2001
The 2001 wildfire season went out with a bang, as major fires, especially in the Northwest, flared up late in the season. However, in the final analysis, the season was pretty typical, as close to the 10-year average number of acres burned, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
Beyond the statistics, however, agencies’ responses to naturally occurring fires fell under scrutiny as groups including the Taxpayers for Common Sense and the Sierra Club expressed criticism.
The NIFC reported that the number, severity and behavior of fires (as well as acreage burned and duration of the season) was much less severe in 2001 than in 2000, although conditions are comparable — lots of fuel and hot, dry weather. The number of acres burned this year was less than half of what had burned as of Oct. 1 last year
According to the NIFC, as of Oct. 1, fires burned 3,229,179 acres nationwide this year; the 10-year average for Oct. 1 is 68,904 fires and 3,491,327 acres. Last year on Oct. 1, more than twice as many acres of land had burned.
The severity of fires varied from region to region in the U.S. For example, Alaska and the Southwest combined recorded less than 300,000 acres of land burned, while Florida, Nevada, Washington and Oregon experienced more active seasons than normal. These four states accounted for more than half — nearly 1.6 of 3.2 million — of the acres burned nationwide.
Sparking the late start of the fire season in the West was a series of dry lightning storms in the Pacific Northwest, the Great Basin and elsewhere, igniting hundreds of fires in August. From Aug. 13 to 15, 1,038 new fires were reported. Before then, most of the thunderstorms in the West were accompanied by precipitation, dousing fires before they had a chance to grow.
Historically, the fire season begins to decline in mid-September. Shorter days, cooler temperatures, higher relative humidity and less lightning are all factors.
Storms in early September in the West brought quite a bit of moisture along with them, reducing the chances for wildland fires in Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Montana and Colorado.
The active fire season in the Northwest came as no surprise as forecasts dating back to the spring predicted an above-normal season. The section of the country from San Francisco to Salt Lake City, and northward to the Canadian border was felt to be most at risk this summer. Events in August confirmed the forecast.
The NIFC attributed this year’s less-severe season to the rain that accompanied thunderstorms through the first part of summer. But agencies, said the NIFC, have never been better prepared for fire. Because of increased funding and more firefighters, equipment, aircraft and other resources, agencies were able to attack unwanted wildland fire more aggressively. In future years, the National Fire Plan will allow more areas with an overabundance of fuels to be treated, further reducing the risk of catastrophic fire, said the NIFC.
More money for less fires
Contrasting with the NIFC’s view however, is Taxpayers for Common Sense, a national budget watchdog organization, which on Sept. 25 charged that the U.S. Forest Service spent more money to fight fewer fires this year, and as a result, other agency priorities were not being completed.
“Firefighting costs have gone through the roof this year,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer, chief forest expert at TCS. “Unexplained increases in fire suppression costs mean that some agency work could be ignored,” he added, referring to Forest Service documents obtained by Taxpayers for Common Sense.
One such document is a letter dated Sept. 7, 2001 (download PDF file) in which Dale Bosworth, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, estimated that firefighting costs would reach $699 million this fiscal year, exceeding available funds by $230 million. In the letter, Bosworth advised agency leaders to “Defer all land acquisitions and construction contracts … and all Working Capital Fund and related ‘project’ acquisitions, including fleet, computer, and radios.”
As of Sept. 25, according to TCS, 519,495 acres of national forest in the West have burned during this year’s fire season. That represents less than a quarter of the acreage burned at the same point last year. If the estimated $699 million cost figure proves accurate, per-acre fire suppression costs will exceed $1,340. That represents an increase of 270 percent over last year’s costs, Taxpayers for Common Sense has calculated.
The group added that the Forest Service continues to aggressively fight nearly every fire, even when studies have shown that firefighting tactics can cause more damage than the fire itself. So far this year, the Forest Service has allowed less than 1 percent of all fires to burn.
The Craggie Fire, burning in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area in the Siskiyou National Forest in southwestern Oregon, is a prime example of a fire that should have been allowed to burn, according to Oppenheimer. Ignited by lightning on Sept. 17, the fire burned entirely within the Wilderness Area, and posed little threat to any homes. The Forest Service estimated that the Craggie Fire would cost taxpayers $2.6 million, an average of $9,455 per acre. According to local forest staff, the Siskiyou National Forest completed a Fire Management Plan for the Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area several years ago, however the plan was never formally approved.
Congress, said Oppenheimer, is also partly to blame for the rise in costs. “Congress needs to break the habit of throwing money at the flames,” he said. “If they don’t take action, costs will continue to skyrocket without any real reforms.”
The influx of new funding under the National Fire Plan was targeted at the Forest Service to improve fire preparedness, allow for more appropriate responses to wildfire, and reduce the risk of “catastrophic” fires. One of the key provisions of the 1995 Federal Fire Policy was the implementation of Fire Management Plans for every burnable acre of federal land. To date, the Forest Service has completed fewer than 43 percent of these plans, said TCS. Without the plans, the Forest Service has no choice but to aggressively fight every fire.
The plans would allow more wildfires to burn within predetermined limits. This would help to restore fire-dependent forests, while reducing the costs of suppression and lessening the tremendous risks faced by firefighters, according to Oppenheimer.
TCS authored last year’s From the Ashes: Reducing the Rising Costs and Harmful Effects of Western Wildfires report, an analysis of the 2000 wildfire season.
Sierra Club weighs in
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney visited Idaho this summer to discuss wildfire policy, and the Sierra Club seized the opportunity to express its views about protecting homes and communities from fires. The timber industry’s goal, said the Sierra Club, is to increase logging, while forest scientists say that logging actually exacerbates fire threats more than any other human activity. The Sierra Club recommends restoring the natural role of fire in U.S. forests.
“We can not allow the Bush administration’s new wildfire policy to become a smokescreen to allow increased commercial logging all through our national forests, especially the roadless areas this administration is already failing to protect,” said Roger Singer of the Sierra Club in Boise. “We must be vigilant and make certain that ‘mechanized thinning’ is not a code term for logging our last wild forests.”
The Sierra Club released a new report that examines how the federal government and the logging industry have increased risks of catastrophic fires, and what the U.S. can do to protect homes and restore fire’s natural role to forests. The report — Forest Fires: Beyond the Heat and Hype — delves into the natural benefits of fires, outlines the threats to our forests, and presents solutions to protect homes, defuse fire threats and restore forests’ health.
The timber industry ran ads in Idaho this summer claiming extensive logging is the way to reduce fire, a charge the Sierra Club disagrees with strongly.
“Decades of misguided policies by the government and logging industry have changed healthy forests and increased the severity of forest fires,” said Sierra Club forest activist and report contributor Bernie Zaleha. “But by using controlled burns, we can reduce brush that has built up from decades of fire suppression.”
Fires, said the environmental group, restore minerals to the soil, create habitat for fish and wildlife and release seeds. Fires halt insect infestation and eliminate smaller brush and saplings that compete with the forests’ large, fire-resistant trees. Fifty years of aggressive fire suppression by the U.S. government has hindered fire’s natural processes, the group charges. The suppression attempts snuffed out fire’s positive natural role and resulted in catastrophic wildfires.
The Sierra Club’s report includes a list of 10 steps homeowners can take to make homes fire-safe, including:
- Clean pine needles, branches and other flammable materials from roofs and gutters.
- Remove any tree limbs extending within 10 feet of any chimney or wood stove flue.
- Store propane tanks away from buildings and clear flammable vegetation from tank areas.
- Stack firewood and store picnic tables, boats and other flammable materials away from homes.