The U.S. Forest Service is spending too much money as it fights large wildfires, a federal auditor’s report found.
Forest Service firefighters now spend most of their efforts and funds protecting homes in the “wildland urban interface,” neighborhoods built in rural areas prone to wildfires, a new report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General shows.
More of the costs of defending homes should be borne by state and local agencies, the report states. The Forest Service spent more than $1 billion on wildfire-fighting three of the past six years.
“There’s such a huge expansion of this wildland urban interface, I don’t think, frankly, the firefighting community has been able to keep up,” said Richard Halsey, a firefighter, ecologist and wildfire researcher with the Escondido-based California Chaparral Field Institute.
Crews from the Forest Service, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and local agencies worked together on the desert’s two major wildfires this year – July’s Sawtooth-Millard complex fires and October’s Esperanza blaze that killed five Forest Service firefighters while they tried protecting an unoccupied home.
The Inspector General’s audit report recommends the Forest Service seek clarification from Congress on what the federal responsibility should be for protecting wildfire-threatened properties in the wildland urban interface. The Forest Service should also renegotiate agreements with state and local agencies as appropriate, the report states.
In addition to making wildfire-fighting more costly, protecting homes is making the job more dangerous for firefighters, Halsey said.
He noted a common thread between the fatal Esperanza fire and the Sawtooth fire, where several fire crews became entrapped in the blaze but no one was killed or seriously injured: the wind-fueled fires moved fast upslope and overran fire crews attempting to protect structures.
“Some of those homes on Esperanza, to be honest, should have had signs outside of their entryway saying, ‘This property is not defensible,'” he said.
“I don’t mind if people want to build out there; we just have to turn around this expectation that we are going to be able to protect their houses from burning down.”
Forest Service officials have concurred with the auditor report’s findings and are attempting to implement changes, including more frequently letting fires burn in areas where it makes sense to reduce the buildup of brush, trees and other fuels.
Attempts to reach Forest Service California region spokesman Matt Mathes for comment were unsuccessful.
CDF spokesman Mike Jarvis said state officials would review the auditor’s report “to see if any sections apply to us.”
“We have a great relationship with the Forest Service,” he said. “It’s a partnership. It really takes the state, federal and local governments to make this work, and it’s been working really well the last few years.”
CDF’s 2006 budget is $850 million, about half of which is directly associated with firefighting of all kinds, including wildfires, Jarvis said.
Halsey had his own suggestion for alleviating the cost and danger of protecting homes in the wildland urban interface: put firefighters on planning boards.
“They are the ones that say you can or cannot build in certain areas, and if you do build there, we’re not going to go and protect it,” he said.
Halsey also suggested making it a “severe liability” if homeowners do not take preventive measures such as clearing an appropriate defensible space and boxing in their eaves, and then firefighters are killed or injured while protecting the home during a wildfire.
Riverside County Supervisor Roy Wilson said a committee has been formed to review ways to prevent another tragedy such as Esperanza. But he added, “I don’t think there’s been a rash of careless building in those rural areas.”
Public safety is an important ingredient in the planning process, Wilson said.
“It all goes back to the zoning,” he said. “If it allows someone to build on their property, then you have to work with homeowners to make sure that it issafe.”