OpEd: I am tired of complaints about the cost of fighting wildfires

Firefighting and warfighting are both expensive

Whoopup Fire, Wyoming 2011

Above: Whoopup Fire, Wyoming, 2011

(This was first published on Fire Aviation)

The large air tankers on exclusive use contracts have been cut this year from 20 to 13. In 2002 there were 44. This is a 73 percent reduction in the last 16 years.

No scooping air tankers are on exclusive use contracts this year.

The large Type 1 helicopters were cut last year from 34 to 28 and that reduction remains in effect this year.

Some say we need to reduce the cost of fighting wildfires. At first glance the above cuts may seem to accomplish that. But failing to engage in a quick, aggressive initial attack on small fires by using overwhelming force from both the air and the ground, can allow a 10-acre fire to become a megafire, ultimately costing many millions of dollars. CAL FIRE gets this. The federal government does not.

Meanwhile the United States spends trillions of dollars on adventures on the other side of the world while the defense of our homeland against the increasing number of acres burned in wildfires is being virtually ignored by the Administration and Congress. A former military pilot told me this week that just one sortie by a military plane on the other side of the world can cost millions of dollars when the cost of the weapons used is included. The military industrial complex has hundreds of dedicated, aggressive, well-funded lobbyists giving millions to our elected officials. Any pressure on politicians to better defend our country from wildfires on our own soil is very small by comparison.

I am tired of people wringing their hands about the cost of wildfires.

You can’t fight fire on the cheap — firefighting and warfighting are both expensive. What we’re spending in the United States on the defense of our homeland is a very small fraction of what it costs to blow up stuff in countries that many Americans can’t find on a map.

Government officials and politicians who complain about the cost need to stop talking and fix the problem. The primary issue that leads to the whining is that in busy years we rob Peter to pay Paul — taking money from unrelated accounts to pay for emergency fire suppression. This can create chaos in those other functions such as fire prevention and reducing fuels that make fires difficult to control. Congress needs to create the “fire funding fix” that has been talked about for many years — a completely separate account for fires. Appropriately and adequately funding fire suppression and rebuilding the aerial firefighting fleet should be high priorities for the Administration and Congress.

Maybe we need some teenagers to take on this issue!

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

10 thoughts on “OpEd: I am tired of complaints about the cost of fighting wildfires”

  1. Fire is not the enemy.
    In most places, you might as well fight a war against dust devils or starlings.
    Millions spent (and dozens of lives lost) suppressing fires that are (mainly) doing good work for the forests, all so we can have worse fires later? This is absurd. We know better. We’ve known better for half a century.
    Comparing the costs of war on wildfire to the war on humans isn’t useful, both are using the wrong tools to solve problems. Air power breeds terrorists in war, and overgrown, unhealthy forests in the wildland.
    We can’t bomb our way to peace or to healthy forests.

  2. CWN costs roughly 40% more than Exclusisve Use. Does anyone doubt that there will be 20+ heavy air tankers working this year? All this means is that the feds are playing an accounting game. They are defiantly going to end up spending more on tanker costs over the 2018 fire season than if they would have increased the Exclusive Use air tankers to 25 or more.

    1. I grew up on initial attack.
      Unfortunately, no one fights fire anymore. That’s why a lot of fires get big. But a lot of them also get big because we used to do more IA. So again, damned if you do…

  3. If we actually practiced initial attack that would be all fine & dandy.

    Unfortunately, it seems like these days they use the money to let them get big then blow it on “managing” the fires.

    Take one quick look at the private vs. federal acreage that burns up every year & you’ll see who cares about protecting their assets. To the private timberland owners, the trees, soil, & water are their assets. To the FS job security seems to be the asset of choice these days.

    1. I couldn’t disagree more. Initial Attack stops hundreds of fires a year; the problem is there are not enough ground and air resources to do the job…

      1. All the disagreement in the world isn’t going to bulldoze the FACTS:

        State of Oregon. ODF protects roughly half of the forestland base from fire (16MM ac.) & the FS gets the rest (14MM ac.).

        2017 wildfire year.

        636,000 Ac. lost on Federal land, or 4.5% of total.

        42,0000 Ac. lost on ODF protected land, or 0.25% of total. Yes 1/4 of 1 %.

        They didn’t seem to have any trouble rounding up 1500-2000 troops 6 weeks after Chetco engulfed 100k ac & came within a fart of liquidating the town of Brookings. I watched the column for a month out my backdoor as they baby sat it from ridgelines 7 miles back with a skeleton crew, & a LET IT BURN policy.

        The IA was nowhere to be found.

        Did you see any of these fire camps in Aug-Sept.?! There were plenty of troops, they were just withheld until it was too late.

        1. Mike Delegan, I am a member of the executive board of CWP – Curry Wildfire Protection LLC.
          We are a group of private citizens, adversarial to the FS policies that allowed this fire.
          In particular, we intend to expose “use of fire as a tool” employed on this fire.
          In other words “Let It Burn”. A 12 mile perimeter, 6 miles on each side, IS NOT maximum suppression. I would be available to discuss the facts and little known facts of this incident Chetco Bar MegaFire with you or anyone else that wants the real story of how this fire was handled.
          Guy M. opens60355@mypacks.net

  4. Seems the greater the fire danger and resulting horrific fires, the less is spent to combat this enemy. Air tanker operators have spent serious money and time upgrading the “air tanker fleet” which we obviously need, and now the worse the fire danger threat gets, the less we use the weapons we have to fight this enemy. I don’t get it!


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