The Angora Fire, which burned nearly 200 homes in South Lake Tahoe, can teach important lessons about wildland fire. If the Forest Service has its way, however, they will be the wrong lessons.
The official Forest Service response to the fire followed a predictable pattern. Forest officials claim that a century of mismanagement (by their own agency) allowed fuels to build up to unnatural levels, making the forests ripe for catastrophic fire. “There is an ungodly amount of fuel” in the Tahoe area, says a Forest Service ecologist.
The excess fuels story has done wonders for the Forest Service budget. Ever since a fire burned several hundred homes in Los Alamos in 2000, Congress has dumped money on wildfires. The Forest Service’s total fire budget has more than tripled, and the biggest percentage increase has been for hazardous fuel treatments. Now, after spending $11 billion on fire and hazardous fuel treatments since 2000, we have another fire destroying hundreds of homes.
It is increasingly clear that the Forest Service strategy of treating fuels and aggressively suppressing almost all wildfires is the wrong approach. First, there are too many acres to treat. The Forest Service estimates that 70 million federal acres need immediate treatment and 140 million more will need it soon. Despite its huge budget increases, the Forest Service currently treats less than 3 million acres a year.
Second, treating fuels won’t stop fires. The Angora Fire started in a treated area and about half the acres burned were recently treated. When it is hot and dry enough, forests will burn no matter how much fuels have been treated.
Third, the best way to protect homes is to treat the private land directly around the homes, not remote public lands. Forest Service fire researcher Jack Cohen has found that homes catch fire if they have flammable roofs or they are exposed to the radiant heat of trees and shrubs burning near the home.
People can protect their homes from virtually any wildfire by making them “firewise,” including installing nonflammable roofs and planting fire-resistant landscaping — such as mowed lawns and trimmed trees — within 100 to 150 feet of the house. The interior of a truly firewise home can be the safest refuge in a serious wildland fire.
The Angora Fire backs this up. Most houses in the area were not firewise. A 2005 review found up to half of South Tahoe homes had flammable roofs and up to 89 percent were surrounded by hazardous vegetation. Some Tahoe landowners blame local planning restrictions against tree removal, but one who violated those rules and firewised his property says his house survived while his neighbors’ did not.
Forest Service research says that fewer than 8 million acres of land with homes and other structures are at high risk of fire. More than three-fourths of those acres are private. Treating these acres — and it should mostly be done with private money — will protect homes; treating 70 million public forest acres will not.
Fortunately, many insurance companies now require owners of homes near public lands and other forests to make their properties fire safe. But what should be done about wildfire on public lands?
Most forest ecologists believe that, to restore ecosystem integrity, public land managers should allow more acres to burn. But the Forest Service and other fire agencies have suppressed 99.9 percent of wildland fires to date in 2007. This is not only costly; it continues to cause the same ecological damage that the Forest Service admits resulted from its previous policies.
Forest ecosystems vary tremendously, so there is no one right combination of fuel treatment, fire suppression, and wildfire. But today’s highly centralized Forest Service responds more to national political priorities than to local forest conditions.
The solution is to decentralize federal forests so wildfire decisions are responsive to the local environment. One possibility is to contract federal fire management out to the states. Another is to fund public land agencies out of user fees rather than tax dollars.
Forest Service fire spending is out of control. That spending is not solving the problem. If no major institutional changes are made, far more money will go up in smoke, hundreds of homes will continue to burn each year, and the forests will remain as unhealthy as ever.
Randal O’Toole is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of the book Reforming the Forest Service and a recent Cato paper titled “The Perfect Firestorm: Bringing Forest Service Wildfire Costs Under Control.”