Firefighting costs ablaze, audit finds

Firefighting costs ablaze, audit finds

17 December 2006

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USA– When the Deep fire broke out in the Sequoia National Forest on Aug. 12, 2004,Forest Service fire managers projected the cost of fighting it would be modest– about $200 an acre.

But costs raced faster than the flames. “The fire brought a significantamount of political pressure” to protect a nearby state park, giant sequoiatrees and small mountain towns, a new federal audit says. As a result,firefighters threw “everything but the kitchen sink” at the fire, theaudit adds.

Five days later, the Deep fire was out, but containing it had cost a smallfortune: $3,000 an acre, or 15 times more than expected. In all, fire managersspent $9 million on the fire — an average of $1.8 million a day.

The runaway expenses are cited in the recent U.S. Department of AgricultureOffice of Inspector General audit, which sharply criticizes Forest Service firemanagers for spending excessively, failing to learn from the past and fightingfires that should have been allowed to burn naturally.

Though jolted by the findings, Forest Service officials said they intend toact on them.

“It wasn’t the cake and ice cream I might have been hoping for — but Iaccept the findings,” said Tom Harbour, the agency’s director of fire andaviation, who requested the audit. “I’m convinced there is progress to bemade in … cost containment. I’m going to redouble our efforts.”

Among the audit’s highlights:

• The Forest Service spends enormous sums defending communities along theedges of national forests in the rapidly developing “wildland urbaninterface” zone. Up to 90 percent of the cost of fighting large fires is inprotecting private property, which drains money from protecting public resources,such as endangered species and water quality.

• “Despite abundant evidence that natural wildfire reduces hazardousfuels,” the Forest Service still puts out nearly all fires, in part becauseit is rooted in “a culture of fire suppression.” Unless officialsrestore wildfire more frequently to the landscape, vegetation will thicken and”environmental damage and suppression costs are certain to escalate.”

• The agency’s own efforts to control expenditures — throughcost-containment reviews — have failed because Forest Service managers are notrequired to correct problems and findings are not distributed widely enough.

The inspector general audit comes in the wake of the nation’s costliest fireseason. This year, fires began early in Oklahoma and Texas, then moved to theRockies, the Northwest and California over the summer and fall.

In all, the Forest Service spent more than $1.5 billion putting them out –including $100 million to $200 million siphoned from nonfire budgets such asreforestation.

The spending has attracted the attention of the White House Office ofManagement and Budget, the Government Accountability Office and congressionalcommittees.

“For taxpayers to spend up to $2 billion a year suppressing fires withwhat in many respects is a century-old policy simply does not make sense,economically or environmentally,” said Sen. Jeffrey Bingaman, a New MexicoDemocrat, in a statement.

The largest factor in rising costs, the audit found, is the expense ofprotecting the homes and communities that have sprouted around the edges offederal forests.

Nationwide, more than 8.5 million homes popped up in the so-calledwildland-urban interface zone in the 1990s, Harbour said. Even though thestructures are on private land, the Forest Service rushes to defend them,typically with the help of state and local fire departments.

The march of development into the woods “is an escalating fire problem,”the audit says, adding that many “landowners take no action to reduce theirhomes’ vulnerability to wildfire and many local governments do not require”them to do so.

Although the Forest Service has cost-sharing arrangements with other firedepartments, the audit says they are not updated often enough and the ForestService, unable to regulate the development, “bears a disproportionateshare of protection costs.”

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