On September 17, 2016, six fires sparked along a remote road on the Modoc National Forest in California—the presumed work of an arsonist.
As is the case with 98 percent of wildfires, four of the fires were contained within just a few hours, each burning less than half an acre. Firefighters contained the fifth fire after a couple of days; it burned less than 300 acres.
The sixth fire, which the Forest Service called “Soup 2” (the fires were in the vicinity of the Soup Springs campground) escaped firefighters’ initial attack. Winds from the west pushed the flames uphill, into the South Warner Wilderness Area. Over the course of the next week, Soup 2 burned about 2,200 acres.
According to the Forest Service, the fire threatened one “uninhabited structure.” Rain and snow were in the forecast. The fire was destined to put itself out.
On the second day of the blaze, the Forest Service assigned more than 900 firefighters to battle Soup 2. On Day 3, the agency spent $909,655 on the fire. The final tally for fighting Soup 2, a fire that burned harmlessly into a wilderness area, was $5.4 million.
Rain and snow weren’t the only things looming as the Forest Service fought Soup 2. So was the end of the fiscal year, and the money was there to be spent.
Last year was fairly average in terms of wildfires on national forests, but it was a whopper when it comes to money spent fighting those fires. In 2016, the Forest Service spent about $1.6 billion fighting wildfires across the country, just a skosh less than 2015’s record total of $1.7 billion.
The agency’s overseers and members of Congress made the case time after time: More fires are raging through our national forests and they’re getting bigger and more expensive to fight. Fire years like the last two represent a “new normal.” Those same leaders pleaded for the government to shovel more money to the Forest Service to fight those fires and to make forests more “resilient” by, among other things, logging them.
But there’s a problem here. Cold statistics belie the flaming rhetoric.
Let’s crunch some numbers.
It’s true that in 2015, a record number of acres across the United States burned in wildfires—more than 10 million. But more than half of that was in remote areas of Alaska, where little was done to stop them. Fewer than 2 million acres—less than 20 percent of the total—burned on national forests.
In 2016, about 5.5 million acres burned nationwide, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, which is less than the 10-year average of just over 7 million acres. Again, most of that area was on land other than national forests. About 1.25 million acres burned on land managed by the Forest Service last year.
More than 1.5 million acres of the total burned in the South last year. That included the devastating November blaze that tore through the town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, killing 14 people and destroying thousands of homes and businesses. But only about 130,000 acres in the region burned on national forests.
Now let’s look at the past two years by considering another statistic—the total number of wildfires.
In 2015, there were 7,040 fires on land managed by the Forest Service, a number that’s close to the 10-year average. In 2016, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, there were 5,855 fires on Forest Service-managed land.
Those numbers are in keeping with a broader trend: The total number of fires on national forests has been decreasing in recent years. From 1994 to 2002, there were an average of 10,398 fires on national forests each year. Since then, the average number of fires on Forest Service-managed land has been 6,858.
Most of the decline is attributable to a decrease in human-caused fires. Logging levels have dropped by about 80 percent over the past quarter century on national forests. Fewer loggers out in the woods mean fewer opportunities for accidental ignitions. Another factor is the decline of smoking—fewer burning cigarette butts are being tossed out of open car windows.
Finally, let’s consider one more statistic.
In 2015—that record year for wildfires—the Forest Service spent an average of about $887 for each acre burned on land it manages. It spent about $241,000 for each fire on its land. Last year, those numbers rose to $1,284 per acre and $273,000 per fire.
Why would those numbers go up? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Congress allotted the agency an extra $600 million for firefighting for fiscal year 2016.
Twenty years ago, firefighting accounted for about 16 percent of the Forest Service’s budget. Now it’s more than 50 percent. The agency estimates that number will rise to 67 percent by 2025 if Congress doesn’t act. During the Obama administration, Forest Service brass and their Department of Agriculture overseers pushed for opening up Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to pay for fighting the largest wildfires.
Forest Service officials point to climate change and an increase in the number of people living near national forests as the two primary reasons for exploding fire costs. There’s certainly some truth to both. But there’s something else at work here.
In the decades before 1991, when a judge ordered a halt to national forest logging to protect the spotted owl and other rare creatures, the Forest Service had a clear mission—get out the cut.
In the years since, the agency has struggled to forge a new mission. Fighting wildfires, and thinning forests to make them more “resilient,” seems to be that new mission. (The efficacy of both efforts is dubious at best, but that’s a subject for another day.)
The Forest Service is correct in asserting that a century of fire suppression has left many of our public forests overcrowded with underbrush and dense stands of relatively young trees.
Those stands will be thinned, in one of two ways—by fire and other natural processes, or by mechanical thinning. Letting more fires burn on national forests, including ones like Soup 2, doesn’t just make fiscal sense. It would also represent a big step toward allowing our public forests to return to a more natural state.