The Politics of Fire

Review of

Flames in Our Forests: Disaster or Renewal

Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2002, 245 pp.

Suppressing fire was the stated policy of the U.S. Forest Service for much of the past century and still dominates the thinking of most voters and legislators. Its consequence has been to increase the amount of fuel (incendiary plant material) in forests, preventing minor fires but making huge ones like those that were in the news during the summer of 2002 more likely.

In the 1970s, budgetary pressure provoked serious rethinking of U.S. policy toward forest fires. Although the government’s investment in suppressing fires had spiraled with advances in the technology of firefighting, outbreaks of catastrophic forest fires persisted. When the federal Office of Management and Budget advised land management agencies to develop more cost-effective strategies, the concept of managing fire gained precedence among foresters over preventing it. This shift was buttressed by research, which increasingly pointed to the benefits of natural disturbances in forests; not just fire, but also disease, pests, and wind. The notion that fire is a critical part of forest ecosystems began to emerge.

The dry forests of the western United States, in particular, came to be seen as home to a diverse array of species, each adapted to different growing conditions and different frequencies and intensities of fire. These forest communities developed over at least the past 11,000 years, after the last ice age. They were shaped by fire, researchers contended, and fire plays a major role in their ecological health and stability.

The argument that suppressing wildfires is not only expensive and perhaps unachievable in the long term but also ecologically counterproductive is no longer new. Today, few professional foresters and forest ecologists would dispute it.

If this perspective is so well accepted, then why does the goal of suppressing wildfires continue to lead our actions and public policy? According to the authors of Flames in Our Forests, bureaucracies tend to have lives of their own. The science may have been updated, but career bureaucrats and legislators may not know or care. Budgets for suppressing fires are normally large and are easily increased in times of emergency. When big fires make headlines, most legislators support additional funding to prevent them. In contrast, the routine calls of professional foresters for funding to pay for firebreaks and controlled burns and petitions to expand logging as a means of reducing fuel loads are less compelling. Such measures are especially hard for politicians to justify to the vast majority of U.S. citizens, who are largely unaware that the antifire message of Smokey Bear has been seriously amended.

In addition, over the years many laws and procedures have been put in place under the premise that forest fires need to be suppressed. Steps to manage fuel loads by means of controlled burns, logging, and firebreaks often conflict with existing laws and/or procedures, making such activities much more difficult. Appeals and litigation have plagued attempts to reduce fuel loads. A Forest Service report, not cited in this book, states that nearly half (48 percent) of the Forest Service’s plans in recent years for getting rid of hazardous fuels have been appealed or litigated by outside groups.

Controlled burns in populated areas are difficult for several reasons. For example, the optimal time for such burns is during windless periods. However, under such conditions air pollution problems are the greatest. Thus, although winds reduce the potential for air pollution, they increase the probability of a controlled burn “escaping” and becoming a wildfire, as occurred in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 2000.

Additionally, the credibility of the Forest Service, the agency primarily responsible for reducing fuel loads in the nation’s forests, is low these days. During the 1980s, while the forest industry tugged at the Forest Service from one side to try to increase timber harvests on public lands, environmentalists were tugging from the other side to reduce harvests. By the 1990s, confidence in the Forest Service had reached all-time lows, and its discretion to harvest timber had become severely limited by antilogging campaigns. The period from the late 1980s through the 1990s saw a decline of more than 80 percent in timber harvests from the national forests. Environmentalists opposed pleas for logging to reduce forest fuel loads, fearing that this might in fact be simply a covert strategy for maintaining the profits of timber companies.

The authors recognize that not all environmentalist groups react this way. Environmentalist groups based in communities potentially threatened by wildfire often favor fuel-reducing management, including limited logging. National groups tend to oppose such approaches in favor of a hands-off policy, because they lack trust in the forest industry and the Forest Service to pursue logging only when its benefits to forest ecosystems are clear. Also, some oppose all logging on ethical grounds.

Burning down the house

Flames in Our Forests presents an excellent overview of these issues that can be the basis of a more sensible policy. Such a policy would consist of updated science, a reoriented Forest Service, an informed public, and fewer legal and bureaucratic constraints on the decisionmaking power of forest communities.

However, some important questions are not addressed. For example, forests with large developments inside their borders cannot be approached in the same way as forests with little development. From a cost-effective perspective, it is probably sensible to minimize the expense of fire-suppression activities in areas with limited development. Marginally developed areas could be left to the vagaries of natural disturbances. It is surely much less expensive to lose a few houses to wildfire than to spend tens of millions of dollars fighting fires in places of low economic productivity or value. Also, as the experience of the past few years has shown, it may be cheaper to evacuate a population and simply let a fire burn, even if some buildings and businesses are destroyed in the process. Although this often happens by default, to be fair and consistent the practice should be affirmed by public policy.

Another question the book doesn’t explore is who should pay for efforts to reduce fire hazards in the forest. Should the costs associated with both fire prevention and fire suppression be the responsibility of local, state, and federal government? Or should a greater share of the costs be borne by property owners, who, after all, have chosen to undertake development inside forests, despite the risk?

One way to reduce the costs of interventions to minimize damage from forest fires is to allow private contractors who undertake the activity to sell useable timber removed from the area. With suitable supervision and control, such an arrangement need not become a proxy for traditional logging. Such an approach could dramatically reduce the costs of fuel-load control and, in some cases, generate positive receipts to the U.S. Treasury.

Why should the loss of property to forest fire be compensated from the public purse? If compensation for losses of development due to wildfire in high-risk areas were left to the operations of the insurance market, with premiums reflecting the risks, then developers might reconsider the wisdom of siting their projects in forests, thereby making it easier for foresters to let the cycle of fire and regeneration run its course.

These questions are beyond the book’s stated scope, but their answers are necessary to an appropriate political response to the “flames in our forests.” If we can muster the political will to accept prescription burns and to let natural fires in less-developed areas burn unimpeded, then large sections of the nation’s forests will gradually return to a more natural state. Over time, fire suppression costs will gradually be reduced, fires will pose less of a threat to local communities, and the total cost of forest management and firefighting to society will probably decline.

Cite this Article

Sedjo, Roger A. “The Politics of Fire.” Issues in Science and Technology 19, no. 1 (Fall 2002).

Vol. XIX, No. 1, Fall 2002