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Montana Viewpoint

HIGHER FOREST FIRE COSTS WON’T BE GOING AWAY

June 23, 2008

The Legislative Committee on Fire Suppression came to Thompson Falls last week. I like the idea of the Legislature coming to the people, rather than the other way around. Of course it costs extra to put on a legislative road show, but it costs citizens to travel to Helena, too, and since it all comes out of the same pocket—the citizen’s—it’s not such a bad deal.

Although there are several issues of concern, such as fighting fire in the most cost effective and efficient manner, whether to protect homes or forests,  or who should pay for what; eventually they all boil down to the same thing—money. It is costing lots more to fight forest fires than it ever has, and costs are growing. Summers have been drier and hotter, and there is the unhappy fact that drought and heat stress trees and make them more susceptible to disease which makes them better prospects for fire fuel.

The Committee isn’t responsible for looking into fire on the National Forest, but it’s impossible to understand the situation without considering what happens there. Basically, there is a heck of a lot of fuel in the National Forests that has built up over time as well as that created by recent climatic conditions. The way to take care of this is to increase forest health by thinning timber, but there are several obstacles in the way, mostly economic. 

First, there isn’t a housing market large enough to justify taking the amount of timber that could be cut, and what market there is has been saturated by imported lumber. Why in heck we import lumber is beyond me, but under NAFTA we have to; fully one third of the lumber used in America comes from Canada. Couple that with a crumbing market for new home construction, which accounts for 40% of lumber consumption and it’s a pretty dreary scenario.

Second, the Forest Service budget has not been increased to meet the increased tasks that Congress gives it. The Healthy Forests Act didn’t come complete with a healthy wallet, so it is implemented at the local level by cutting back on other programs. Poorly funded Federal mandates guarantee, if not failure, something far less than success.

Third, while mainstream environmental groups are actively engaged with the Forest Service in positive ways, there is pressure from a few environmental organizations to hold the Forest Service to unrealistically high standards of performance which are then enforced by litigating sales. This increases the cost of management to the Forest Service, which consumes a larger portion of the same frozen budget.

Other uses of timber such as fuel to produce electricity don’t seem to be economically feasible, so if we do want to have healthy forests it would have to be heavily subsidized by the Feds, which means, by us. I would welcome a program like the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, but that’s not in the cards.

While the causes of fire haven’t changed, the cost of fire suppression at the state and federal level has increased dramatically because the emphasis has switched from protecting the timber to protecting homes in the timber.  

In recent years as more and more people have moved to Montana they have built or purchased homes in the woods. This area is has been given the moniker of the Wildland-Urban Interface.  Somehow “urban” doesn’t seem like the right word considering the relatively low density of the homes, but there it is and we’re stuck with it.

Protecting these homes from fire increases both the size of the fire line and the number of people needed to defend it, and raises costs commensurately. Measures can be taken by homeowners to make their homes less susceptible to fire, but in my opinion they will probably decrease costs only marginally.

The Wildland-Urban Interface is here to stay, and will have to be protected, so there will still be significant costs incurred in bad fire years, creating defensible space around homes will help, but it won’t eliminate these costs. We can study the problem all we want, but there are limited remedies with even more limited results. The times (and weather) have changed, and we’ll just have to get used to it.

Jim Elliott

jim@jimelliott.org