It’s the Forest Service, not fire department

It’s the Forest Service, not fire department

24 December 2006

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SUMMARY: Masking, shifting fire protection costs encourages illogical development.

USA — An audit completed late last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General hammers the Forest Service for burning money in the way it fights forest fires. Although auditors conclude the agency wastes money through poor cost containment and by fighting fires that might actually do more good than harm by thinning overgrown forests, much of the high cost of firefighting comes from protecting private property, not the national forests.
Indeed, depending on the degree of development, between 50 percent and 95 percent of the cost of firefighting may be attributable to protecting homes and other structures on private property, the auditors found.

That’s not altogether surprising to anyone here in Montana or elsewhere in the West, where every summer we see the Forest Service pulling out all the stops to protect lives and structures – small armies of men and women on the ground, helicopters and bombers aloft, huge fleets of vehicles and a massive organization providing logistical support. When smoke’s rising, virtually no one questions expenditures aimed at protecting private property – unless it’s to complain they’re insufficient. Recall last summer when Montana’s Sen. Conrad Burns publicly blasted firefighters for not doing enough to save the grass in pastures on which rancher’s cows could graze. After the massive fires of 2000, firefighters sheepishly conceded they’d spent more money protecting some buildings than the structures were worth.

But if the point made in the audit isn’t new, perhaps it’s time to take a new look at the problem.

Obviously, people and their property need protection from fire. The question is whether that should be the Forest Service’s job. Moreover, we should also consider whether all of us might do more to protect ourselves from forest fires, most of all by making better decisions about where and how we develop property.

People who are smart enough not to build in flood plains and avalanche chutes and steep, slide-prone hillsides are all too willing to build their houses in densely forested settings where wildfire is more dependably predictable than floods, avalanches and mudslides. Come to think of it, not everyone is smart enough not to build homes in harm’s way, which is why we have things like zoning and building codes.

We’re never going to get a handle on firefighting danger – much less the costs of firefighting – if we insist on sprawling residential development throughout what’s known as the “wildland-urban interface.” How do we prevent this? One way involves factoring wildfire danger into subdivision review, something proposed in a bill expected to be introduced in the Legislature next month.

The insurance and mortgage industries could play a role, too. If more of the risks of building on wildfire-prone areas were borne by property owners, their bankers and their insurers – rather than taxpayers – we’d likely see changes in development patterns. Similarly, if rural residents relied on their local fire department to protect their homes and lives, leaving the Forest Service to tend to the national forests, we’d see dramatic change. Indeed, if that were the case, property taxes for rural fire departments would soar to cover the full wildfire-fighting costs, including much of what the Forest Service pays for now. Unlike the federal government, which just prints more money when it needs it, local departments are on a pay-as-we-go basis. The traditional approach to firefighting, in which the Forest Service (and other agencies) throw everything they’ve got at fires to protect houses and the people in them, socializes the costs. The landowners enjoy all the benefits of their homes in the woods, but the rest of us share the expense.

OIG auditors note that “current public expectations and uncertainties about protection responsibilities compel the (Forest Service) to suppress fires aggressively and at great expense when private property is at risk.” The agency does this despite the fact that not all fires are detrimental to the national forests themselves – indeed, often a cleansing, rejuvenating fire is exactly what the agency prescribes to improve forest health. The auditors suggest the Forest Service renegotiate arrangements with state and local governments to “reflect state and local governments’ added responsibility which accompanies growth in (wildland-urban interface) private homes.”

That’s a political can of worms, to be sure. But shifting responsibility for protecting property from the agency that actually exists to manage land and resources to states and fire departments and property owners would dramatically shift development patterns. Saving money on firefighting would be just one of thebenefits.

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