Wildfire culture has the wrong priorities

Scott Linden /

The West was ablaze in wildfires, and will be for decades to come. Last year, the U.S. Forest Service spent over $1.4 billion on wildfire suppression and locally the Deschutes National Forest spent almost $20 million, mostly on the Pole Creek Fire. Make no mistake, fighting fires is big business.

And while careless humans and Mother Nature are certainly the cause of the fire, there is a fundamental reason we should hope our lives and property aren’t at risk from future blazes: It pays to let fires burn.

A careful examination makes one thing clear. There are few incentives for subduing a wildfire quickly. But there are many reasons to prolong the “fight.” Let’s follow the money:

Look no further than Sisters or Burns this year. A miniature city mushroomed overnight, its sole economic engine the business of fire. From boots-on-the-ground grunts to caterers, owners of retardant-dropping aircraft to purveyors of showers-for-hire to hawkers of commemorative T-shirts, they all make money only while a fire burns. The longer it burns, the more money they make.

Even the way professional fire managers are deployed and compensated encourages long-lived “fights” with wildfire. While we choke and pray the fire lines hold, forest service staffers clamor to abandon their regular responsibilities (which languish, undone) for lucrative overtime, per diem payments, “hazard pay” and travel cash they receive for supporting the firefighting industry.

On the other hand, a quickly beaten fire deprives out-of-town contractors, a few local merchants and professional fire managers of (collectively) millions of our tax dollars.

Look further up the chain of command and you find more evidence the system is broken. Like the lottery, each national forest has a shot at millions of firefighting dollars. It’s a free-for-all based in part on how bad local “firecrats” can make the crisis appear to higher-ups holding the purse strings.

The more threatening the fire, the more dollars, staff, contractors and equipment local staff are able to commandeer. When smoke billows, a bloated bureaucracy grows, amoebalike, with every decision subconsciously influenced by an opportunity to prolong the effort and generate more contracts, hire more personnel, grant more overtime, hazard pay and per-diem payments.

I’m not saying it happens. But as lawyers like to say, there is at least the “appearance of impropriety.” There is a built-in conflict of interest that in any other industry or government agency would come under more scrutiny than it does when the heat is on, so to speak.

It wasn’t always this way. Until the spotted owl logging ban, the value of marketable timber was reason enough to douse fires quickly and completely. Funds from timber sales went to the same agency charged with fighting the fire, so there was little incentive to watch dollar bills go up in smoke. But with the allowable cut a shadow of its former self, the trees, brush, deer, elk and squirrels are more likely to roast and rot on the ground where they fell.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the hard work and dedication of firefighters, especially the Pulaski-swinging smoke-eaters who put their lives on the line. They should rightfully be leading the effort for better fire management, as they are most vulnerable to bad management decisions. But they are also the front line in a multi-billion dollar industry built around a flawed model, administered by bureaucrats with little reason to fear real scrutiny.

When fires are fought with the wrong motive, people die and property is lost. Ecosystems are destroyed. Our economy and our health suffer. Tax dollars are squandered. Wouldn’t it be better to have a firefighting culture that focuses on those priorities than one so heavily influenced by the prospect of making money?