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"A blank-check budgeting process prompts Forest Service managers to throw money at fires but neglect the thinning projects that reduce their size, ferocity and cost.
Sacramento Bee (California) September 17, 2006 Sunday
METRO FINAL EDITION MAIN NEWS; Pg. A1, Tom Knudson Bee Staff Writer 530) 582-5336 or email@example.com.
Followed by: Acreage burned is highest in 45 years
Billowing toward a record high, Forest Service firefighting costs threaten to drain funds from other programs, including reforestation
Four years after the most expensive fire season in history, two years after an exhaustive federal report on high firefighting costs, the U.S. Forest Service still is burning through dollars like wildfire through chaparral.
Last month, tax dollars flew out the agency's door at an average of $12 million a day -- $500,000 an hour. By the time you finish reading this paragraph, $1,250 more will be spent.
This week, if current patterns hold, 2006 will become the most costly year ever, exceeding the $1.27 billion spent in 2002.
The pace of the spending, which has drawn the concern of Congress and the White House Office of Management and Budget, threatens to siphon money from other programs, among them reforestation efforts designed to help the land heal from fire.
The cost has been aggravated by the nature of this year's fire season, which began early and so far has crackled across a record 8.8 million acres -- including 145,000 acres burning in California on Saturday. But that's hardly the only reason for the soaring tab. Others include:
A blank-check budgeting process that prompts Forest Service managers to throw money at fires but neglect the thinning projects that reduce their size, ferocity and cost. "There are no effective incentives" to corral costs, says an internal Forest Service memo obtained by The Bee.
The growing use of contract air tankers, as well as industrial-type helicopters that can cost $30,000 a day or more, to replace air tankers grounded after fatal crashes in 2002.
"They are absolutely incredible machines," said Joe Stutler, a retired Forest Service firefighter and commander. "But when you have a helicopter that costs $8,000 an hour, and you're flying it 12 hours a day, you do the math. We've got over a hundred of those in the system right now."
Intervention by members of Congress with no firefighting experience who demand aerial water and retardant drops that aren't needed -- just to satisfy frazzled constituents.
"It's like me trying to help a brain surgeon," said Mike Edrington, a retired Forest Service fire and aviation manager who said he was pressured by California congressional representatives to call out the military on San Diego County wildfires in 2003.
Edrington resisted. "I'm frustrated because we spend a lot of energy trying to deal with that instead of focusing on fire," he said.
Other factors kindle costs, too, none more key than the dramatic accumulation of tinder-dry vegetation across the West and a riptide of humanity moving into forested regions, making it impossible to let wildfires just burn and risky to stage controlled burns.
"Usually, when somebody drops a match, there's a house in the way somewhere," said Kenny Duvall, a retired Forest Service fire aviation officer in Southern California.
But the more wildfire is suppressed, the more flammable debris builds up, laying the groundwork for bigger and more dangerous fires -- and more spending to put them out.
"We keep throwing more money at it, but are we getting any better at what we do?" asked Bob Coward, a retired Forest Service pilot from Redding. "Are we saving any more acres or being more effective? I don't know."
This is the fourth time this century that fire spending has topped $1 billion. This year the money is buying everything from 67-cents-a-gallon fire retardant -- the orange stuff that streams out of planes -- to $10.25-a-gallon iced tea, $13.12-a-pound trail mix and $58,129-a-day air tankers.
Near Foresthill last week, the 8,398-acre Ralston fire not only spewed smoke from Reno to Roseville, it dipped into the pocketbooks of taxpayers, too -- at a rate of about $1 million a day. As of Friday, $10.5 million had been spent for air support, ground crews, engines, portable toilets, portable showers, bulldozers, even a fire behavior analyst flown in from Florida, according to a Forest Service information officer.
The 1,471 firefighters working the blaze Friday represented just a fraction of the 20,000 in the field nationwide. This year's fire season has stretched resources so thin that more than 400 firefighters and managers have been called in from Canada, New Zealand and Australia to pitch in -- adding to the expense.
The Forest Service says it is trying hard to lasso costs. Last month, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth sent a memo to the field, announcing appointment of a controller for fire spending and imploring managers to "be especially careful to evaluate cost containment as an objective in your suppression strategies."
Where, specifically, does the money go? Documents from the 2,270-acre Harding fire in Tahoe National Forest last year give a sense of it: bags of ice, bottles of water, bulldozers, tires. More than half the tab went for two items: wages for firefighters and air support.
In all, $3 million was spent in just six days. The money paid hundreds of $300-a-day federal firefighters and $460-a-day private contract firefighters. It paid for more than two dozen $1,000-a-day fire engines, a $4,500-a-day portable toilet company, three large helicopters each rented for $10,000 to $31,000 a day, and one $52,000-a-day El Segundo catering company -- For Stars Express Inc. -- that specializes in catering to movie sets and Hollywood stars.
This year, For Stars is again working fires. It is charging the government $10.25 a gallon for iced tea, $8.16 a pound for salted peanuts and $15.89 for a sack lunch -- prices that reflect not only the cost of the grub but getting it to the field.
"It's exorbitant," said Jim Wills, a private fire contractor whose crews worked the Harding fire. "How much can you make a bag lunch for?"
Others disagree. "Fifty thousand dollars a day doesn't strike me as out of line," Michael Vickers, a paramedic on the Harding fire, said in an e-mail. "Caterers usually provide, along with the mobile kitchen, hand-washing stations, huge tents to eat under and portable lights."
But he added: "There is however a fair amount of waste. Today's bag lunches now have a shelf life of only 12 hours. ... Once that time limit is exceeded, it's to the Dumpster they go."
The Harding fire was fought intensely because of homes nearby -- a subdivision on the edge of the small town of Loyalton. And in that, it was a microcosm for today's fires, and high fire costs, across the country.
"This is a problem of people in dangerous places," said Roger Kennedy, author of a new book: "Wildfire and Americans: How to Save Lives, Property and Your Tax Dollars."
"Construction crews and fire crews are racing with each other," said Kennedy, a former National Park Service director.
Congress gives the Forest Service $1.2 billion for fire suppression, but only $281 million to thin forests of the woody debris that fuels them.
"You're talking about hundreds of millions of acres" that need to be thinned, said Edrington, the retired fire manager. "We're treating about 2 million acres a year."
South of Quincy, Gil Driscoll lives at the edge of Plumas National Forest. One day in August, he showed a visitor a part of the forest near his home clotted with brush and dead branches -- an inferno waiting to happen.
"Would you want this behind your house?" asked Driscoll. "I'm not happy."
Fighting fire in such areas "escalates costs astronomically" because lives and property are at stake, said James Caswell, co-chairman of a panel that examined the high cost of fire suppression in 2004.
Political involvement by members of Congress who demand costly aerial retardant drops can drive the bill even higher.
"The pressure is there to do that," said Stutler, the former Forest Service incident commander. "I've personally seen it.
"Sometimes you get caught up in the moment and say, 'Well, let's at least try something,' " Stutler added. "Anytime you try something with a large airplane, it costs money. There is no free lunch with that."
In the Southern California firestorms of 2003, that pressure fell on Edrington. It came from Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, and other politicians, Edrington said.
Hunter lost a home in the fire. Media coverage shows he pushed hard for the Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to call in the military. He even pleaded with Gov. Gray Davis.
Hunter's spokesman, Joe Kasper, said in an e-mail that the congressman "coordinated with state and local agencies to help protect property and save lives, and he is widely praised for his efforts."
Edrington, who was sent south from Oregon to deal with the politics of the San Diego fire, is philosophical about the situation, saying it's simply how the system works.
"The folks who were putting the pressure on ... they don't understand that if you get Santa Ana winds blowing, and everything is covered with smoke, you can't use the (aerial) assets," he said.
"And if you have a multithousand-acre brush fire running, dumping retardant ... isn't going to do any good.
"It looks great. People think we're doing a lot. But we look at it and say: 'It's like dumping thousand-dollar bills out of the bomb-bay door.' "
Several studies have examined the high cost of firefighting and suggested ways to control it. Nonetheless, the tab continues to grow: $1 billion in 2000; $1.27 billion in 2002; $1 billion in 2003; and this year nearly $1.2 billion -- and counting.
"The current problem is more political than ever," Forest Service fire researcher John Szymoniak wrote in an August memo.
"The expectation for effective and complete fire suppression by our elected officials on the one hand, and (the Office of Management and Budget) for cost control on the other, (are) ... conflicting objectives which cannot be resolved at the local forest level."
Szymoniak did not return a call from The Bee.
One big culprit in rising suppression costs is simple to pinpoint: helicopters and airplanes.
The cost of calling an industrial-size helicopter to a fire -- up to $32,000 per day -- does not include the $3,000 to $6,000 an hour the Forest Service must pay to helicopter contractors when the machines are in the air.
Hourly costs for air tankers are not cheap, either -- and badly needed safety requirements have caused them to soar from $2,000 an hour in 2003 to $6,000 an hour today. The daily rate has more than tripled, from $2,600 in 2003 to $9,297 today.
Currently the agency is evaluating a contract for using a 747 supertanker from Evergreen International Aviation for retardant drops when needed, at $110,000 a day.
"The fact is that the agency has got a problem -- and the problem is firefighting costs," said one Forest Service pilot who asked not to be named because he feared recrimination.
Tom Harbour, director of fire and aviation for the Forest Service in Washington, said the cost is worth it.
"Fires are expensive because we focus on protecting life and property," he said. "Cost is a consideration, but it's a secondary consideration."
Some firefighters, though, say planes and helicopters are not always effective -- and sometimes are wasteful. One practice that draws criticism is using helicopters for mop-up, the snuffing out of embers after a fire is under control.
That's a practice normally performed by far-cheaper ground crews.
"They are using (helicopters) to dump water on the ground when there are people there to take care of it," said Wills, the Chico fire contractor.
For his part, Harbour said he doesn't like so-called "heli-mopping" either. "We've told folks this is an inappropriate practice," he said.
Hour by hour, gallon by gallon, sack lunch by sack lunch, the bill adds up.
This week, the agency expects to exceed its suppression budget and begin using other appropriated dollars, starting with reforestation first -- a process called fire borrowing.
"The agency doesn't enjoy dipping into other accounts," said David Tenny, a deputy undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service. "It's a very frustrating circumstance to be in."
In past years, Congress has restored some -- but not all -- funds raided from other accounts.
This year, with money tight, the White House Office of Management and Budget is watching, too.
"I am concerned the Forest Service suppression spending has reached new highs," OMB Associate Director David Anderson wrote to the Forest Service on Aug. 22. And he asked:
"What specific incentives has the Forest Service put in place ... to constrain fire suppression costs?"
The agency scrambled to reply. Fire specialists and managers shot e-mails and memos back and forth. One memo gave a frank assessment:
"There are no incentives in place," wrote Szymoniak, the fire researcher. "Incentives are possible -- but they will require congressional support and action for them to be effective cost savings measures."
He also lashed out at an analytical tool used to help rein in costs called wildland fire situation analysis (WFSA).
"I have watched through the years as large sums of money are committed via a WFSA as though the money was not real," he wrote.
"This year is no different."
Dan Jiron, a Forest Service spokesman, criticized Szymoniak's memo as not "even close to reality."
"He is a think-tank guy, and he was asked for his opinion," Jiron said.
"And that's what he gave. And that's all it was."
On Sept. 1 -- as fires raged across the northern Rockies and another $12 million or so went up in smoke -- the agency forwarded its official reply to the Office of Management and Budget.
And the tone, while technical, was upbeat.
Despite the tough fire season, despite escalating costs since late July, it said, "the Forest Service is keeping costs at a comparable level to a similar level of fire activity in 2003."
The Bee's Tom Knudson can be reached at (530) 582-5336 or .
NOTES: INVESTIGATIVE REPORT
GRAPHIC: Sacramento Bee
photographs / Randy Pench
------------------------------------------------------Acreage burned is highest in 45 years
By Christopher Smith, September 14, 2006
BOISE, Idaho - The 2006 wildfire season has set a 45-year-high in the number of acres burned, but flames have mainly charred sparsely populated desert ranges and the loss of life on the fire lines is down from previous years.
Wednesday's running total compiled by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise showed 8,693,994 acres, or 13,584 square miles, burned by 81,881 fires this year. That's just above last year's record of 8,686,753 acres, or 13,573 square miles for the year. Reliable records of wildfire acreage were not kept prior to 1960, officials say.
While this year's burn will set a record and is well above the 10-year average of 4.9 million acres, the season overall is not considered unusual by federal firefighting officials.
“On paper, it may be the worst in almost 50 years, but we have to keep ahold of the context that there was tremendous fire activity in January and February in Oklahoma and Texas, something we seldom have,” said Rose Davis of the national fire control center. “The acres are certainly the largest we've had in a few decades, but it's basically been a normal, active fire season.”
And it may almost be over. A cold front was moving into the Pacific Northwest Wednesday that should drop temperatures 20 to 30 degrees across Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana by the weekend and bring snow to mountains above 6,000 feet elevation. Forecasters said a second system will follow it early next week.
“I don't know if this is going to be a season-ending event, but it's definitely going to allow fire crews to make some headway,” said Miriam Rorig, a research meteorologist with the Pacific Wildlands Fire Sciences Laboratory in Seattle. “Lightning traditionally drops off in September so we would also expect to see fewer starts.”
Davis said 15 wildland firefighters, including private contractors, have died this year, significantly fewer deaths than past years. The NIFC lists 30 killed in 2003 and 20 in 2004.
The worst single incident was a helicopter crash Aug. 13 in Idaho that killed three Payette National Forest firefighters and their pilot.
The Interior Department and the U.S. Forest Service have spent about $1.25 billion fighting the fires since the fiscal 2006 year began last Oct. 1.
The Forest Service projects it will be $150 million over budget for firefighting expenses by the end of this month. Last week, the U.S. Senate tacked an additional $275 million for firefighting onto its version of the defense appropriations bill.
Environmentalists say heavy demand on firefighting resources - crews from New Zealand, Australia and Canada as well as National Guard units have assisted on western fire lines this summer - forced fire managers to limit their efforts on fires that didn't pose an immediate threat to property or people. The result was that more lightning-caused fires were allowed to burn unchecked to rejuvenate forest ecosystems.
“It's been a banner year for these wildland fire-use fires,” said Tim Ingalsbee, director of the Oregon-based Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology. “Part of it is related to the dry conditions that allow easy ignition, but part of it is due to the fact suppression crews are overstretched so they have had to prioritize which fires get fought and which could benefit the system.”
On the Net: Wildland Fire Statistics: http://www.nifc.gov/stats/index.html
Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM Pacific
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