Putting Out Fires by Throwing Money on Them

Now that forest fires are in the news, someone noticed that President Obama has proposed a new way of funding wild firefighting. Instead of borrowing from its fuels treatment funds when the Forest Service exhausts its regular fire-fighting budget, Obama wants to let the agency draw upon a new “special disaster account” that is “adjusted each year to reflect the 10-year average cost of responding to such events.”

Treating excessive firefighting costs by giving the Forest Service more money makes as much sense as attempting to suppress forest fires by throwing gasoline on them. In case you don’t hear the sarcasm, it makes no sense at all.

Obama is focusing on the wrong problem, the drawdown of funds intended for fuel treatments. The real problem is the incentives the Forest Service has to spend wildly on firefighting.

As far as I know, no democracy has given any government agency a blank check to accomplish any goal–except the Forest Service for fighting fires. Even the Pentagon was given budgets for fighting World War II, the Cold War, and other wars. But in 1908, Congress gave the Forest Service a blank check for firefighting, saying the agency could spend as much as it needed to suppress fires, and Congress would reimburse it later.

Congress repealed the blank-check law in about 1978, leading to eight years of relatively modest spending on firefighting. But after two serious fire seasons in 1987 and 1988, Congress reimbursed the agency’s firefighting debts, and since then it has muddled about, not knowing what to do. Obama’s new proposal puts the agency firmly back in the blank-check mode.

The president has underscored his support for excessive spending by allowing the Forest Service to buy four new air tankers, including a DC-10. The agency already had access to a DC-10, but rarely used it because it wasn’t cost-effective. Now it will have two white elephants on its hands.

Contrary to popular belief, firefighting has not grown more expensive because of anthropogenic climate change. The nation actually suffered worse droughts in the 1930s than in the last decade, and there is no evidence, in the forests at least, that recent fires are due to anything but cyclical climate changes.

Nor are costs high because of new houses in the woods, or wildland-urban interface as fire people call it. Protecting these homes only requires treatment, either in advance of the fire through landscaping and home design or as fires approach through application of fire retardant, of the homes themselves and land within 150 feet of the homes. Anything the Forest Service does beyond that 150 feet is neither necessary nor sufficient to protect homes that are themselves untreated.

Instead, lots of acres burn because the Forest Service now places firefighters well behind the fire lines and has them back burn everything between them and the fire lines. In some fires, close to half the acres burned are back burns.

Meanwhile, costs are high because the Forest Service knows it has what amounts to a blank check, so it makes no effort to save money. As I explain in this Cato paper, the only solution is to “divorce the agency from Congress’s blank check.” One way to do this might be to have national forests join state fire protection districts by paying an annual per-acre fee, and then letting the states worry about fire fighting. They would have much stronger incentives to control fire at the lowest, rather than the highest, possible cost.

The president’s concern that the Forest Service might hamper its fire prevention efforts by having to borrow from those funds to suppress fires is touching but needless. As shown by previous fires, Congress could fully fund fire prevention and fuel treatment programs for years without reducing the number of homes destroyed by fire each year. In fact, Congress is so willing to do anything to protect homes that the Forest Service practically depends on a few houses burning down each year to keep the money flowing.

The Forest Service should educate homeowners about what they need to do to defend their homes from fire. Beyond that, what people actually do is between them and their insurance companies, which for too long have indirectly relied on the blank check to keep their costs down. Getting firefighting decisions out of the hands of federal agencies may be the only way to let this happen.