Book Review by Brian Ballou
Running Out of Time: Wildfires and Our Imperiled Forests
David L. Auchterlonie and Jeffrey A. Lehman
When I was asked to review a new book, Running Out of Time, by David Auchterlonie and Jeffrey Lehman, I was underwhelmed. First, I had to set aside the book I was already reading, The Complete Works of P.G. Wodehouse, and then dive into something that looked like it was penned by the Government Accounting Office, something Congress orders when it wants to give one of the federal government’s agencies a good spanking.
Instead, it turned out to be a surprisingly thorough and readable book written by two high-level business troubleshooters who are genuinely concerned about climate change and the role of wildfires in making the planet considerably hotter than it used to be.
Wildfires have come to dominate the news in the past 30 or more years since they have become larger and harder to stop, and the destruction caused by them has reached epic proportions. And this is not just a Western United States problem. Wildfires have plagued the planet — in the U.S. from Alaska to Florida, in Australia and South Africa, southern Europe, and the northernmost forests of Canada and Russia. (If I’ve left anyone out, just wait; your turn is coming.)
Efforts have been made to stop the Big Wildfire problem by a number of agencies in the U.S. However, in the authors’ analysis, the money spent on the cure is way, way short of what is needed.
“A put-the-fire-out-first strategy should be fundamental.”
“[T]he DOI, USDA, Homeland Security, Defense/Energy and others will spend approximately $16.8 billion [in FY2021-22] on forest maintenance and wildfire management. This figure represents only 0.28 percent of the total federal budget. Despite $8.5 billion of increased allocations since 2000, the number of burned acres of forestland also increased by more than 75 percent during the same period. Even with the most recent ten-year funding from the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the federal funding commitment is not keeping pace. It is, quite frankly, an embarrassment, considering the stated priorities of preserving our forests. Americans impacted by wildfires each year (212 million or nearly 65 percent of the country’s population) deserve better.”
Call me old-fashioned, but $22.6 billion sounds like a lot of money. But so does 65 percent of the United States’ population being affected by wildfire.
Scarier yet is the number of homes, subdivisions, even whole towns burned to cinders by wildfires. In the past 30-plus years, that number has skyrocketed. And it’s expected to get worse.
“Under current federal agencies’ practices,” say Auchterlonie and Lehman, “wildfires now place 46 million residences in 70,000 communities at risk. Two-thirds of the country face the threat of large, long-duration wildfires. As the wildland-urban interface (WUI) expands due to expected population growth in the next twenty-five years, some experts predict a 50 percent increase in wildfire acreage consumed by 2050.”
To which they add: “[T]he last update to federal interagency wildfire fighting was in 2009. It excludes any mention of prioritizing early wildfire extinguishment.” Instead it focuses on thinning and prescribed burning. The authors say, “A put-the-fire-out-first strategy should be fundamental.”
“Annual devastation from wildfires requires an immediate, laser-focused, and warlike response. Study after study shows aggressive wildfire initial response within the first few hours of ignition minimizes the likelihood of more devastating and intensive wildfires.”
Then there’s the smoke problem. Wildfires in the United States produce approximately 10 percent of the global wildfire greenhouse gas emissions each year, say the authors. “Wildfires across the globe produce twice the CO2 as all commercial airline flights in the world in 2019, and about 60 percent of emissions from automobiles. While the economic cost to the environment caused by wildfires has not been ‘quantified,’ it is substantial and ‘one more reason to expeditiously extinguish them.'”
Therein lies a very old problem: How to quickly and completely extinguish a wildfire after it has escaped initial attack and burned thousands, or tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of acres of wildland. It soon emerges in Running Out of Time that the answer is to have more airtankers. A lot more. “[T]he government should purchase a fleet of 200 SEATs, 75 to 125 large airtankers (LATs), and 30 to 50 very large airtankers (VLATs).” And more helicopters and bulldozers, too.
Oh, and another thing: “Fight wildfire twenty-four hours a day.” While this poke in the eye is primarily for the U.S. Forest Service, the authors also note that quite a few state and municipal firefighting agencies engage fires quickly and work as productively as possible around the clock. Some even own night-flying helicopters — but they also have trouble with a small number of their fires, which too often become landscape-gobbling, home-wrecking wildfires.
While their airtanker buying recommendation is an alarming, blow-your-hair-back shopping list, Messrs. Auchterlonie and Lehman go into considerable detail to illustrate their position on how to pull this off. They propose a top-to-bottom reconfiguration of many (perhaps all) federal agencies to make them more efficient. The authors are, after all, business consultants who have helped large corporations with turnarounds and mergers, and were consultants to the likes of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas. They have 80 years of combined experience in the private sector and government. They know how to strip large corporations down to the bone and build them back better.
An admirable amount of research went into this book, and it is notable that the focus is on finding a better way for keeping that small percentage of wildfires that escape initial attack from becoming destructive megafires. Granted, working firefighters and managers may not be the target audience — although many could benefit from reading the book. I suspect city planners, homebuilders, elected officials, and members of the news media could learn a great deal from Running out of Time. It’s also a good book for the public — the people who know or suspect that they live in a wildfire-prone area.
Wildfire remains a dizzying, frightening mystery to millions of people. This book may not assuage their fears, but at least they’ll understand considerably better what they’re up against — and maybe take away some small hope that two guys who have never dug an inch of fireline do know how to fix it.
Published by Amplify Publishing Group
Copyright ©2023 by the authors and Crowbar Research Insights LLC
Edition reviewed: Hardcover (publisher-supplied) 403 pages. $34.95
The book is also available in paperback and kindle editions.