Fighting fires costs too much, audit says

Fighting fires costs too much, audit says

19 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 that the cost of fighting itwould be modest – about $200 an acre.

Costs, however, raced faster than the fire. “The fire brought asignificant amount of political pressure” to protect a nearby state park,giant sequoia trees and small mountain towns, a new federal audit says.

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 expenses are referred to in a U.S. Department of Agriculture Office ofInspector General audit, which sharply cri-ticizes Forest Service fire managersfor spending excessively, failing to learn from the past and fighting fires thatshould have been allowed to burn naturally.

Among the audit’s highlights:

? The Forest Service spends enormous sums defending com-munities along theedges of national forests in the “wildland-urban interface” zone. Upto 90 percent of the cost of fighting large fires is in protecting privateproperty, which drains money from protecting public resources, such asendangered 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, vegetation will thicken and “environmentaldamage and suppression costs are certain to escalate.”

? The agency’s own efforts to control expenditures – through cost-containmentreviews – have failed because Forest Service managers are not required tocorrect problems and findings are not distributed widely enough.

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