USA–– In November 2005, architects of a federal program meant to better allocate money and manpower to fight wildfires met in rented office space in Boise, Idaho, to examine the results of a test run.
What it showed wasn’t surprising: Some areas of the country needed more resources and some deserved less.
The group prepared a briefing paper and color-coded chart to explain the findings to budget officers and decision-makers on Capitol Hill.
Within short order, the model was dead cast aside as flawed by agency officials and a scientific panel over the objections of its authors and an independent congressional investigator who say the U.S. Forest Service was unwilling to impose even modest budget changes.
As a scaled-down version of the program nears fruition after 11 years and at least $46 million, regions that would have benefited from that test run have suffered fires of historic proportions this summer: from the largest fire in New Mexico history to infernos in the sagebrush country of southern Idaho and along the California-Oregon border.
This has been a disastrous year of wildfires in the West. Six Colorado homeowners have died in three wildfires. Firefighters are battling or monitoring more than 50 large wildfires in 12 Western states, including the contained Waldo Canyon and High Park fires in Colorado.
Chester Joy, a retired U.S. Government Accountability Office natural resources expert, expressed frustration in a series of reports that federal agencies have failed to develop the program, called Fire Program Analysis, as part of a coordinated, cost-effective strategy.
“Billions of dollars, homes and people’s lives were at stake and now we’re paying the price,” Joy said in an interview.
Forest Service officials deny sabotaging a program that could have reshaped how billions of federal wildfire program dollars are spent, saying valid concerns existed about the initial model. They say the revised program will become a valuable planning tool.
However, two separate reviews of the long-delayed newer version of FPA found several flaws including that it allows federal agencies to tinker with data and come up with results to their liking.
In 2001, Congress instructed the Forest Service and four Interior Department agencies Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs to develop a comprehensive plan for pooling their resources to use firefighting budgets as efficiently as possible.
The agencies turned to Douglas Rideout, a forest-economics professor at Colorado State University, to create a computer model. Rideout said he took the agencies’ instruction to “build a completely objective system that would get them the most for their budget.”
The agencies provided relative values for acres of wilderness, wildlife habitat, cultural resources and forested acres near homes. At stake were budgets for firefighters, equipment, engines and managers. In the fall of 2005, the group did a test run of FPA, which included data from 46 of the nation’s 139 fire-planning units all that was available at that time, said Stephen Botti, who led the FPA project for the National Park Service before he retired.
Under the parameters, he said, no unit’s budget would change by more than 5 percent to minimize disruption and to allow for long-term planning.
The winners and losers are evident in a chart dubbed “The Christmas Tree,” because the red-and-green list of units deserving more or fewer resources resembled one.
The test recommended putting more resources in the West including units in Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and California as well as fire-prone areas of central Florida and southwest Texas.
Areas warranting fewer resources included other parts of Texas, the South and Midwest.
Colorado would have been impacted minimally.
The model also suggested taking money out of Alaska and putting more into the Sierra region in California. Botti said the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, the nation’s largest, “had a very large budget and almost no fires.”
According to a spokesman, the Alaska forest has a $775,700 wildland fire budget this year and four five-person engines. The largest fire there in the last 22 years burned 600 acres, he said.
“Politically unacceptable”The Denver Post in July requested a 10-year history of wildfire budget amounts for each of the Forest Service’s nine regions. To date, the Forest Service has not provided any numbers in response to that request.
Botti said FPA developers emphasized the results were preliminary. “No one was saying, ‘This is going to be your budget,’ ” Botti said.
Even so, the prospect of budget shifts proved unacceptable to Forest Service officials, he and others said.
“As soon as the preliminary run was seen by the persons in authority, it went hyper-political,” Botti said. “The answer from the leadership was: ‘Politically unacceptable.’ “
He said one Forest Service official “blatantly told me that the Forest Service cannot accept even a 5 percent shift, even within the Forest Service, even between one forest and another.”
Asked Botti: “Then what was the point of running an analysis?”
Joy, the retired GAO expert, said the initiative “got strangled in the crib.”
He said the Forest Service was unwilling to take on Sen. Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican who served as chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.
In Interior, “the Bureau of Land Management was on board. The BLM was willing to do it. The Forest Service sunk it,” Joy said. “The Forest Service responded, ‘There’s no way we’re taking this to the Hill. There’s no way.’ And that was the beginning of the end.”
Jim Hubbard, deputy chief of the Forest Service, paints a different picture.
Hubbard said complaints poured in from across the county from both Forest Service and Interior bureaus that the test results “just didn’t make sense.” Even units with the largest number of fires recommended a closer look at the model, he said.
“It was more a matter of the feedback we got from the planning units,” said Hubbard, a former Colorado state forester who authored the seminal firefighting strategy report that led to FPA’s creation. “The politics just didn’t come into it.”
John Phipps, a Forest Service official working on the revised model, has said agency field officers feared “they’d become victims of some scientist’s planning model.”
The agencies involved did convene a team of scientists for a technical review of the original FPA model. The group questioned its ability to deal with fire conditions that deviate from expectations, among other items.
The original FPA’s methodology, however, passed a peer review in a scientific journal last year, said Rideout, the CSU economist. Wally Josephson, the FPA project leader in 2005 and 2006, said when the test of the new system was run, “I think it worked. It was a good start.”
The original model was intended to get maximum results for the money, regardless of which federal agency owned the land.
The new version lets agencies look at “a number of national budget alternatives,” according to a report this year from a consultant hired by the government to review FPA. But it is more limited in scope and designed for fire suppression, not other uses of wildfire dollars, such as reducing hazardous fuels.
Flaws in new system
Two reviews of the new system this year from a government consultant and Interior mentioned these flaws:
The new version doesn’t differentiate between highly valued resources, such as houses and endangered species, and acres in remote forests. And it allows federal agencies to tinker annually with the factors that determine how wildfire dollars should be spent, potentially enabling them “to justify a predetermined outcome.”
Hubbard, the Forest Service’s deputy chief, said it has other methods of weighing those questions, and the FPA model will be able to produce comparisons that evaluate the most important places to protect. FPA “took longer than we thought and cost more than we thought, but we think it’s now becoming a useful tool,” he said.
As 11 years of debates and delays have demonstrated, there is no easy formula for deciding how to reduce catastrophic wildfires.
Fire seasons vary with the weather. This year’s disasters were fueled by extreme drought and record-breaking heat. And some of the data that might be helpful in determining where to focus resources numbers of houses burned and civilians killed, for example simply are not tracked by the Forest Service or other federal agencies.
A risk-management committee of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group in Boise does track firefighter fatalities, entrapments and serious accidents.
A Denver Post review of 20 years of those reports, from 1992 to midsummer 2012, found that California is by far the most dangerous place for firefighters: 90 died in the flames or of other causes ranging from crashes to heart attacks, heat exhaustion, falls and electrocution, plus one murder and one suicide. In 44 wildfires, a total of 267 firefighters were entrapped or injured when flames burned over them.
The Alaska region has been the least deadly. One firefighter died in a parachute training jump, and 27 were entrapped in three incidents. There have been no fatalities or entrapment reports in Alaska since 2006.
Areas of need
This fire season has been the worst in a decade.
In May, two lightning-sparked fires merged to form the Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire in southwestern New Mexico the largest in state history. Fueled by several days of 50-mph winds, the fire consumed 297,000 acres, destroyed a dozen homes and prompted evacuations.
Seven years ago, the initial FPA test run identified that unit as being in dire need of more resources.
Gabe Holguin, fire and aviation staff officer on the Gila National Forest, said he is not surprised, considering that 200 to 400 wildfires break out in an average year “and our resources probably don’t reflect that.”
The Forest Service, though, has taken other steps, he said.
The fire season begins early in Region 3 which covers the Southwest and later in Region 1 which includes Montana, Washington and northern Idaho. So the regions reached an agreement to pool their firefighting resources, concentrating them in the Southwest early and the northern region later, Holguin said.
Smoke jumpers from Idaho and Montana were en route to New Mexico before the fires merged into one, he said.
Holguin said resources were more than adequate, and nothing could have tamed the fire, given the rough, steep terrain and high winds.
“It didn’t really matter how many resources we threw at those fires,” he said. “They were going to do what they wanted to do anyway.”
Circumstances were different about two weeks ago when lightning ignited the Rush fire on the Modoc plateau in northeastern California.
Because firefighters were deployed elsewhere to battle large wildfires from Idaho to California, the firefighting force “wasn’t really adequate” when the wildfire began, said Jerry Wheeler, fire management officer for the Bureau of Land Management there.
The fire grew to 315,000 acres, the second largest in California history, destroying sage grouse habitat, as well as prime mule deer and pronghorn hunting grounds.
The Modoc plateau also was identified in the FPA test run as an area in great need of additional firefighting resources.
Yet over the past decade, the number of BLM firefighters per truck has been cut from seven to five, Wheeler said. Big fires erupt farther east and south earlier in summer, and “by the time we get to the north, we’re strapped for resources,” he said.
No unit in the FPA test run was found to be more in need of help than south-central Idaho, a predominantly grass and sagebrush ecosystem prone to big fires.
More than 1,000 wildfires have burned almost 2 million acres on BLM land alone in the district since 2006, and officials there say firefighting resources have declined slightly during that period.
But Chris Simonson, fire-management officer at the BLM’s Twin Falls District, noted the region is far less populated than others.
“Who was going to suffer if we gained?” he said. “You have to look at it practically that way, too. … I certainly think we probably could have justified having more resources here. But if you try to look wholesale, nationwide, is this the most important place? Who knows?”
In Colorado, Forest Service spokesman Steve Segin said he didn’t hear of any resource shortages at the height of the state’s disastrous fire season this year. He noted officials in Boise can dispatch people and equipment in hours, and almost 5,000 firefighters were in Colorado during the Waldo Canyon, High Park and other fires.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, said he is disappointed FPA has not been completed on schedule but believes a computer-driven solution to allocating resources “was overly ambitious.”
“Something like Fire Program Analysis at best can help inform good decision-making, but it’s not going to make decisions for you,” said Bingaman, who toured this summer’s Whitewater-Baldy Complex fire.
Joy, the GAO investigator, said the catastrophic wildfire problem has been building for decades and “it’s going to take decades to solve. As climate change continues to worsen, this is going to get worse. But we do have the power of computers our best shot.”
The revised FPA model has begun to use field-office information to plan national strategic budgets, said Hubbard, the Forest Service’s deputy chief. He said it may also be used to reallocate resources among firefighting agencies.
“There might be some noise,” he said. “There might even be some politics. But we will make the decisions.”