WATCH: A “fix” for the forestry service’s fire budget

The following is a transcript of an investigative report from Click on the link at the end of the transcript to watch the story.

80 *billion* dollars.. Is one one estimated cost of last year’s wildfires in California. Some have long argued these huge expenses could be lessened if we spent more tax money upfront preventing fires in the first place. Lisa Fletcher reports…a fix is finally kicking in.

This fire season, we followed the US Forest Service to see their daily race to stop disaster.

Lisa: What’s the best prevention tool?

Jason Sieg: There’s not one tool, it’s a variety of tools

Jason Sieg is a district ranger at the Eldorado National Forest – an hour east of Sacramento. He showed us a site where crews do this – intentionally set a controlled burn to eliminate brush and vegetation that could fuel a wildfire.

Jason Sieg: The fire could still move through here, but if it did, the goal is that it would be an intensity and rate of spread to where suppression resources could be in here and work effectively

A different effort a mile up the road, where what looks like logging is actually fire prevention.

Jason Sieg: There’s a lot of acres on the landscape that need to be treated, need to be managed.

Protecting all that land is a massive, expensive endeavor, and too often, those efforts are shortchanged when money shifts from prevention projects to emergency firefighting. Four years ago, we decided to follow the money. Here’s then-head of the Forest Service Robert Bonnie in 2016.

Robert Bonnie: Last year in a bad year, we spent North of 60% on fire related expenses. You can see that the agency is being more and more, less a forest service, and more a fire service.

At the time, the US Forest Service was spending so much of your tax dollars on emergency firefighting, it said it was forced to borrow money from other important budget areas, robbing from efforts to prevent fires in the first place. There’s evidence of that beyond this line of green trees in Eldorado. This is where the King fire burned in 2014, scorching an area bigger than Atlanta, and forcing the evacuation of almost 3,000 people. Fighting that fire cost $117 million, putting budget pressure on the already strained Forest Service.

In 1995, 16 percent of the Forest Service’s annual budget went to fires.

In 2015, that was up to 52 percent. And without change, by 2025, it was projected to be near 70 percent of the budget spent on wildfires. But that change may have arrived in 2020. This year, the fire funding approach is different.

Tony Scardina: This is going to be the first year that we’re going to be able to explore a new tool that Congress has provided with the fire funding fix.

President Trump signed a spending bill last spring including a “fire funding fix.” The fix allows the forest service to use federal disaster relief funds, treating fires more like other disasters like floods and earthquakes. It also raises the funding for firefighting by more than 2 billion dollars. Deputy regional Forester Tony Scardina calls it a good first step.

Tony Scardina: So at least in this situation, we’ll have that increased level of funding and not have to borrow from the prevention and mitigation side and see if that provides a new type of balance

Though, there’s a lot to figure out.

Lisa: It’s sort of akin to – we’ve stopped the bleeding, but the patient is still in the ER. Does that sound about right?

Scardina: We are a long way away from trying to turn the corner. We have to keep making steps forward and the fire funding approach and some of the help from Congress is going to help us take that step. But there’s a lot more to it than that.

Lisa: California’s fire season is starting earlier and ending later, posing a threat to communities all over the state. The hope is new federal funding will allow the Forest Service to put the focus back on prevention.

Last fall, President Trump tweeted that California’s Governor had done a “terrible job” of forest management – and threatened to stop providing federal money for fires. There is a lot of back and forth on these complicated questions in California.

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4 thoughts on “WATCH: A “fix” for the forestry service’s fire budget”

  1. At the end of the piece, the correspondent said that 50% of the land in CA was federal land. That tells me absolutely nothing. The question that I have is how much of that land was involved in the CA fires?

  2. Unlike most of your reports this was a one sided BS report. The USFS is a joke. Follow the money! The USFS does NOT fight fires they MANAGE fires which is code for we keep them burning as long as possible because it makes our personal bank accounts grow. Forest fires have become an INDUSTRY. Most contractors who provide services on fires are former USFS employees! Imagine that! They have food service, portable toilets, wash station, portable shower, laundry stations etc etc! Where were the people that are effected by these fires and lack of forest management in your report? No loggers, no ranchers, no rural people who have lost everything do to this travesty! This report was a joke!

  3. As a recently retired firefighter who spent just shy of 35 years fighting fires here in California, and throughout the western US, I was intrigued to watch Lisa Fletcher’s piece on the challenges in California. While the issues are numerous and the whole story would take many hours of airtime to fully explain, for the most part her reporting was correct. I do have a few additions and one correction from my perspective as someone who worked on the line from newbie scraping the dirt and squirting water to someone who made tactical and strategic decisions as a Chief, to one who worked for many years as a Fire Behavior Analyst.

    The issue of the cost of wildland fires in California especially, but throughout the west, is significant. Most of these suppression costs are directly related to two categories, personnel and aircraft. When a fire escapes initial attack and becomes extended, hundreds, if not thousands, of firefighters respond. California is such a patchwork on land ownership and agencies, no one government agency responds. The US Forest Service (USFS) may be the most recognized, but responses include the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Park Service (NPS), US Fish & Wildlife (USFW), Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), CalFire and local fire departments as well. Increasingly these firefighters are from local government agencies, who have much higher and around the clock pay rates. The second high cost, aircraft, has escalated due to California firefighter’s propensity to use airtankers and heavy lift helicopters, even when their effectiveness in minimal. It may look good on the news, but the cost of an DC-10 or 747 dropping 20,000+ gallons of retardant is astounding. Do that twenty or thirty times a day and you’re talking serious money. When used properly they are effective, but when used because that’s all we know how to do and it looks good, it’s ridiculous.

    The issue of dollar value loss is also significant, but it does not directly correlate to severity. When I began my career in 1980, the intermix of houses in the wildland areas was minimal, and most people in those areas managed their properties to provide defensible space. Today, many people with little to no rural experience buy homes, and assume, the “fire department” will protect them from whatever comes up and over the hill. Add the explosion of homes built in these areas, the volume of homes (and the over-valuation of California property values) and the loss value explodes exponentially.

    Add to that the restrictions from State and Federal agencies holding up fuel reduction projects or worse the herd of lawyers working for environmental groups who flood the courts with injunctions as a delay tactic, and it’s no wonder the woods burn with such intensity. Most projects proposed by legitimate land managers often take five to ten years or more to just work their way through the courts and bureaucratic processes.

    The one “correction” or edit I’d make which was in the tease, and as a sentence towards the end, was about fire seasons in California starting earlier and running longer. While I’m sure most agencies will repeat this talking point (with the intent of gaining support for more staffing and/or increased budgets) I think if one looks at the factual data, there isn’t support for that claim. When I look back through my first season in 1980 I see; There is more news coverage, there are more news worthy incidents because more people inhabit the wildland urban interface, and incidents are getting bigger (which I believe, but can not prove, is due to a more risk adverse initial attack, which leads to less effective suppression, which leads to more extended attack fires). But in 1980, fire in California started in early May, and my last assignment, but not the last incident in the state, was in early December. Fire seasons vary from year to year based on drought, fuel loading, the randomness of human negligence and arson, and weather events like Sundowner and Santa Ana winds which have caused destruction to land, property and people for as long as we’ve been in California. In 2019 Armageddon was predicted, but California saw a relatively mild fire season.

    So, what are some possible solutions? First of all, involved agencies need to do better land management. Stop using the concept of wilderness as an excuse to do nothing. What’s the point of saying we are preserving something to have it swallowed up by the next big fire? Personally, I’d rather come across an old dozer line in the “wilderness”, than have hundreds of thousands of acres of forest burned to the dirt, because of “wilderness restrictions”. Define what is worth protecting. Provide fuel breaks in and around private property. Make privately and publicly owned property valuable again. Fire agencies need to get back to a more aggressive posture when suppressing fires anywhere near the urban interface. And finally, less media drama.

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