Heck of a Job, Smokey!

A couple of weeks ago, the Secretary of Agriculture proudly gave the Chief of the Forest Service an award for “exemplary leadership and accomplishment in reducing the risk of catastrophic fire to both the wildland and Wildland Urban Interface areas through the U.S. Forest Service Hazardous Fuels Program supporting the President’s Healthy Forests Initiative.”

This award would be ironic even if fires in California had not burned hundreds of homes and hundreds of thousands of acres this week. Prior to the southern California inferno, wildland fires had already burned well over 1,800 structures and more than 8 million acres in 2007.

In fact, President Bush’s signing of the Healthy Forests Act in 2003 seemed to signal a huge increase in fires. In the decades prior to 2003, an average of about 4 million acres burned each year and only one year had topped 8 million. Since then, the number of acres burned has never been less than 8 million.

The real problem is too much money: Congress has given the Forest Service a virtual blank check for fire suppression. The agency – perhaps subconsciously realizing that it needs a sustained number of homes burned each year to keep Congress’ interest in giving it money – has not adopted policies aimed at cost-effectively protecting homes. Instead, it merely promises that it will save homes through fire suppression – a promise that it cannot keep.

The result is that homeowners – expecting that the Forest Service will apply massive resources to save their homes – do not make the efforts needed to protect their structures from fires. Those efforts are not very much: mainly applying a nonflammable roof and keeping flammable vegetation to a minimum within 100 to 150 feet of their homes. Those efforts are really all that is needed. In fact, some housing developments have been treated to be so safe from fire that residents are advised to stay in their homes during a fire rather than to evacuate.

For a thorough analysis of Forest Service fire policy, read my Cato policy paper, The Perfect Firestorm. For a review of the recent fires, see my Antiplanner blog.