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The Brainless Frog, Episode 98: Out of Funds To Fight Wildfires, U.S. Shifts Money From Fire Prevention Programs

By Joe Romm  

"The Brainless Frog, Episode 98: Out of Funds To Fight Wildfires, U.S. Shifts Money From Fire Prevention Programs"

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The Washington Post reports this jaw-dropper about the species homo “sapiens” sapiens:

In the worst wildfire season on record, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service ran out of money to pay for firefighters, fire trucks and aircraft that dump retardant on monstrous flames. So officials did about the only thing they could: take money from other forest management programs.

But many of the programs were aimed at preventing giant fires in the first place, and raiding their budgets meant putting off the removal of dried brush and dead wood over vast stretches of land — the things that fuel eye-popping blazes, threatening property and lives.

In the words of the patron saint of bad ideas, d’oh!

Can you imagine a species this insane? This would be even less frog-worthy than cutting the wind energy tax credit while continuing to subsidize oil drilling. Then again, as the overwhelming evidence makes clear, out, “Humans Are Not Like Slowly Boiling Frogs … We Are Like Slowly Boiling Brainless Frogs.”

You’ll be fascinated, but not surprised, to know just how nonsensically the wildfire budgeting for the Forest Service is done by Congress: The “traditional method that members of an appropriations conference committee use to fund wildfire suppression” is “averaging the cost of fighting wildfires over the previous 10 years.”

Forestry experts argue that this approach “is inadequate at a time when climate change is causing longer periods of dryness and drought, giving fires more fuel to burn and resulting in longer wildfire seasons.” Duh!

Remember global warming is already contributing to the worst wildfires “since the last ice age.” And here’s a figure from a 2010 presentation made by the President’s science adviser Dr. John Holdren, about conditions projected for mid-century:

So providing a budget based on ”averaging the cost of fighting wildfires over the previous 10 years” is going to fail in increasingly spectacular fashion, particularly since it has already begun to fail  spectacularly:

Once running from June to September, the season has expanded over the past 10 years to include May and October. It was once rare to see 5 million cumulative acres burn, agriculture officials said. But some recent seasons have recorded millions more than that.

This year’s wildfire burn was nearly 8 million acres at the end of August, about the time that the budget allocated to fight them ran dry.

“They knew they were running out of money early on, in May,” said Chris Topik, director of North American Forest Restoration for the Nature Conservancy. “They were telling people in May, ‘Be careful, don’t spend too much [on prevention].’ ”

Over seven years starting in 2002, $2.2 billion was transferred from other accounts for fire suppression when the budget came up short, according to records provided by the Forest Service. Congress at times reimbursed a fraction of those funds….

Each year that money was removed from brush disposal and timber salvage programs, the Forest Service’s efforts to prevent fire fell “further and further behind,” said Jake Donnay, senior director of forestry for National Association of State Foresters. “Even with the appropriations they get, they’re not able to catch up.”

Whoever said an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure? In Congress, the saying goes, it is better to pay for the pound of cure with the money you were going to spend on the ounce of  prevention. [And yes I know this isn't real, long-term prevention aka CO2 mitigation: That's what I testified about in the July "House Hearing Today On Bark Beetles, Drought And Wildfires."]

Now it turns out this year Congress did eventually make up the difference. It provided “at the start of the fiscal year only about half of the $1 billion dollars it actually cost to fight this year’s fires,” but then did reimburse “$400 million from the 2013 Continuing Resolution, allowing fire prevention work to continue.”

The good news is that Congress understands that this sort of budgeting makes no sense. Heck they even created an emergency fund that the Forest Service could put funds into in the (increasingly) rare year they didn’t spend their original allocation for battling wildfires: Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement fund, or FLAME. Get it? We fight widlfires with FLAME. Congress is just so clever … or not:

Congress allocated $415 million for FLAME’s first fiscal year, 2010 — a mild fire season, it turned out. As luck would have it, the following season also presented fewer fires, and a small budget surplus went into FLAME.

But in 2011, Congress went right in after it, taking at least $200 million from the fund and placing into the general treasury to use for other expenditures.

“It defeats the purpose of FLAME,” Topik, a former staff member for the House Appropriations Committee, said of the Forest Service.

So, the bad news is that Congress is run by brainless frogs — that’s why we call it a representative democracy:

Staff members on the committee acknowledged that using the 10-year average cost of wildfire suppression to determine the budget is not ideal. The spokeswoman, Jennifer Hing, said the committee will continue to operate as it has….

I repost this Toles sketch in honor of the committee:

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8 Responses to The Brainless Frog, Episode 98: Out of Funds To Fight Wildfires, U.S. Shifts Money From Fire Prevention Programs

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Heat and dryness are much better predictors of fire than fuel loads:

    http://alethonews.wordpress.com/2010/02/09/the-forest-thinning-trap/

    Degraded forests are hotter and drier. We need to allow for natural processes as much as possible, including fires.

    Most of the fire budget is wasted for both prevention and putting them out.

    • Spike says:

      I live in a highly forested area of the UK where the truth of what you say is clearly apparent to anyone who has eyes to see. The local youths have been trying for decades to incinerate local forests, but they stubbornly refuse to burn, due to the relatively high humidity and infrequent nature of drought in the UK. This is despite significant undergrowth in our forests. The only wildfires we get around here are on grassland and heaths during the occasional hot dry spell in spring and summer. I suspect at some point in the coming decades we shall see the emergence of fire activity in the UK as hot dry spells become more frequent and intense.

  2. The Forest Service claims that their commodity programs are essential for mitigating fire hazard, but they ignore the long-term impacts of logging and grazing on changes of forest structure that make forest more fire-prone.

    For example, an investigation of a century of actual fire, beetle and logging data on the Black Hills found that past logging was a much greater predictor of fire hazard than past beetle outbreaks:

    http://tamino.wordpress.com/2012/02/10/pine-beetles-and-fire-hazard-in-the-black-hills/

    Given that there are literally hundreds of small fires (less than an acre) started by lightning each year in the Black HIlls, but only a handful of large fires each year, indicates that large fires are extreme weather events, little influenced by fuel loadings that so preoccupy the Forest Service.

  3. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    We have our own brainless frogs in Australia. One is our current Prime Minister (who still looks comparatively sane in contrast to the Opposition) who found money for flood relief, after the catastrophic Queensland floods of 2011, by looting or destroying various carbon abatement schemes, such as the Green Car Innovation Fund, Cleaner Car Rebate Scheme, The Solar Hot Water Rebate and numerous others. It was also an obvious propaganda imperative at the time to blame the unprecedented deluges on ‘La Nina’, and when anthropogenic climate destabilisation was ever dared to be mentioned, it was only to dismiss it, contemptuously. The MSM droogs performed with their habitual singularity of opinion and hatred for diversity of arguments, monuments, as ever, to the ‘Free Press’.

  4. David B. Benson says:

    No climate news thread today.

    :-(

  5. jaywfitz says:

    Al Gore hasn’t given up his lifestyle. Does that help the cause of promoting awareness of climate change or not?

    Should anyone–anyone?– be flapping their mouth about “advocating against climate change” if they haven’t given up their lifestyle? Fundamentally, measurably? Authentically?

    Is advocating without personally leading and setting examples exploitive of the crisis? For personal ends?

    Is there any way out of the climate crisis but by changing lifestyles? Does anyone who hasn’t changed lifestyle fundamentally have any moral authority as to tell others how to do so?

    We must be careful when we cast stones.

    • Chris Winter says:

      Jaywfitz wrote:

      “Should anyone — anyone? — be flapping their mouth about ‘advocating against climate change’ if they haven’t given up their lifestyle? Fundamentally, measurably? Authentically?”

      In my view, yes. Were we all required to live the changes we advocated, very little advocacy would occur. If a doctor, for whatever reason, refused to vaccinate his own kids but spoke about against “anti-vaxxers,” would you dismiss his call for vaccination?

      “Is advocating without personally leading and setting examples exploitive of the crisis? For personal ends?”

      Certainly it can be. But whether it is or not is an individual matter. WRT climate change, it’s mostly a handy talking point to use against Al Gore, who is said to be raking in millions by means of his advocacy of cutting CO2 emissions. Evidence to support this charge is scanty.

      “Is there any way out of the climate crisis but by changing lifestyles?”

      Lifestyles will have to change, true. It will be easier to make the changes needed if wind and solar power become more affordable and widely available. That will not be much affected by individual changes in lifestyle; it requires policy changes at the federal level.

      Now I have a question for you: How many members of the middle class must change to a “greener” lifestyle to close down one coal-fired power plant?

  6. I agree with other comments that the irony of the Forest Service redirecting funds away from prevention would be less theoretical if there was any confidence that Forest Service fire prevention programs are appropriate and effective.

    Since out here in the west there is actually very little confidence that Forest Service fire prevention programs are appropriate and effective, this particular example of common short-sighted bureaucratic fail thinking, diverting funds away from cost-effective long term strategies to, literally, fighting fires… seems to rate a “sigh”.