USA — A wall of fire barreled through the forest with a jet-engine roar near Secesh Meadows last August, and local fire Chief Cris Bent knew his work was about to be tested.
Residents of the mountain hamlet in central Idaho prepared for the worst. A month earlier, a forest fire had burned 254 homes near Lake Tahoe and the 2007 fire season appeared ready to claim its next community.
But as the East Zone Complex fire reached the cluster of loosely spaced homes, the flames dropped to the ground, crackling and smoldering.
The fire crept right up to doorsteps. But without the intense flames that spurred the blaze just moments before, no homes burned — a feat fire managers attributed largely to Bent’s push to clear brush from around houses.
“It just blew through the area,” Bent said. “We were well-prepared.”
The town’s ability to withstand a frontal assault by a major wildfire demonstrates what fire behavior experts have been saying for more than a decade: Clearing brush and other flammables and requiring fireproof roofs will protect houses even in an intense wildfire — without risking firefighters’ lives.
More provocatively, the research suggests that fighting fires on public lands to protect homes is ineffective and, in the long run, counterproductive.
It is also far more expensive.
This is the paradox of wildland fire management in America: Most scientists and fire managers agree that fire is an essential element for a healthy forest, and that fighting these blazes serves only to build up fuels and boost the size and frequency of catastrophic fires.
But federal agencies keep attacking almost every wildfire, many deep in the woods, and the rising costs of suppression divert money from protecting homes and communities — which can be saved with the right, often inexpensive, measures.
The result: Billions of taxpayer dollars are spent on what most experts agree is the wrong approach. The lives of firefighters are put in danger on fires that don’t need to be fought. And homes are left vulnerable, their fate often decided by wind direction and the availability of federal firefighters to protect private property.
Federal agencies still put out nearly every fire that starts — of the 80,000 blazes that start every year, an average of 327 are allowed to burn. Out of the 9.8 million acres that burned across the country last year, about 430,000 acres were allowed to burn without suppression, in what managers call “wildland fire use” blazes.
Fire suppression costs have ballooned, rising by a factor of more than six in just a decade, to the $1.86 billion spent last year. Meanwhile, funding to make private homes and communities safer has dropped by more than 30 percent since 2001 — to less than $80 million in 2008 — and more cuts are proposed for 2009.
Congress might soon make it even easier for forest managers to spend tax dollars on fire suppression. This month, an unlikely union of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a liberal Democrat, and Bill Sali, a Republican congressman from Idaho, supported a fund to cover costs of fighting catastrophic fires.
With a sweep of her hands this spring, Carol McCoy-Brown showed off the parklike setting of Warm Lake — a cabin community about 30 miles south of Secesh Meadows.
Well-spaced pine trees loomed over a forest floor nearly free of underbrush. McCoy-Brown, a district ranger with the Boise National Forest, credits a 9-year, $1.6 million Forest Service program to thin trees and clear brush from the community with keeping the 300,000-acre Cascade Complex fire from destroying any of the rustic wood-frame cabins last August.
“It costs a lot less to do these projects than it does to fight a wildfire,” she said.
But the taxpayers didn’t get the savings.
Why? The Forest Service did fight that fire, at a cost of more than $53 million.
Every ground-crew firefighter is outfitted with $415 worth of gloves, goggles and other equipment — and each has to buy his or her own boots. A 20-person crew costs about $7,500 a day, plus the $48 spent for food for each firefighter every day.
Taxpayers pay $14,000 a day to keep each P-3 Orion airtanker on call, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, the Boise command center for fires fought all over the country. When these planes take off, they cost about $6,300 an hour.
A helicopter used to pick up water from lakes to drop on wilderness blazes costs $12,000 a day to reserve, plus $3,000 an hour to fly.
Last year, federal agencies spent more than $260 million on aircraft — often used in the “initial attack” that squelches so many wildfires.
The science of fire
The fire in Secesh Meadows didn’t surprise Jack Cohen, the U.S. Forest Service’s top expert on how fires burn homes.
Most of the public and even many firefighters and fire managers think the fire racing through the canopy of the forest — the intense “crown fire” — is the main threat to homes.
But the reality is that most crown fires lose their intensity when they reach the edge of a community. Trees are spread more thinly in residential areas, intersected by roads and driveways and lawns, so the fires tend to drop to the ground, where they burn with less intensity and are easier to manage than the blazing crown fires.
Cohen has studied dozens of fires across the nation since the 1990s and he sees the same behavior every time.
Most homes are ignited by flying embers, thrown as far as a mile and a half ahead of the crown fire. Or they catch fire when the ground fire reaches brush and trees within 100 feet of the buildings.
The homes themselves burn with high intensity — and can send off their own embers to start new fires — but often the trees around the burned homes are left with their green canopies intact.
That tells Cohen that there is no “wall of fire” blazing through a community and consuming everything in its path. Instead, he says, it shows the fires can be fought within the communities, and that raging fires on public lands don’t need to be stopped in the wilderness to protect private property.
Cohen’s research demonstrates that requiring forest homeowners to have a fireproof roof, to clear their gutters of pine needles, and to clear bushes and trees 100 feet from a home is far less expensive and more effective for protecting homes than fighting fires on public lands.
Cutting trees to thin the forest around communities — the preferred method of treating federal lands to reduce fire danger — reduces airborne embers that ignite many house fires. But that tactic is still more expensive and less effective than clearing around homes.
“We have the ability to be compatible with fire,” Cohen said. “But we mostly choose not to be. … Our expectations, desires, and perceptions are inconsistent with the natural reality.”
Cohen’s conclusions are sound, said David Olson, a Boise National Forest official who has more than 30 years of experience fighting and managing wildfires. But to rely solely on firewise preparation assumes that every homeowner in a fire-prone community will follow all of Cohen’s instructions and not cut corners.
It is human nature, Olson said, not to prepare.
“We will do nothing until a crisis occurs,” he said.
One way to better protect homes and businesses and save federal dollars is to put more onus on the homeowner.
Local governments should enact planning and zoning rules that require homes to be built with fire-resistant roofs and 100-foot buffer zones, Olson said.
“We need to prepare the subdivision before it’s even built,” Olson said. Officially, the responsibility for taking preventive steps lies with local fire departments like Bent’s and the homeowners themselves.
But federal firefighters have made protecting homes on private property one of their highest priorities, below only keeping firefighters and residents safe.
In 2004, $535 million of the federal agencies’ $1 billion firefighting budget went to protecting homes and property, according to a 2006 audit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General.
The federal program, the inspector general said, “removes incentives for landowners” to take responsibility for their own protection and ensure their homes are constructed and landscaped in ways that reduce wildfire risks.
“They’re definitely going in the wrong direction by providing more funds for suppression,” said Alison Berry, research fellow for the Property and Environment Research Center, a libertarian think tank in Bozeman.