A losing battle 

The U.S. is spending billions to fight ‘catastrophic’ forest fires. But the big blowups will continue, like it or not. For the forests, this may be good news. Part 1

By Ray Ring

High Country News

BOISE, IDAHO The campus of the National Interagency Fire Center, headquarters of the world’s largest wildfire-fighting empire, fills 23 buildings sprawled across 55 acres here on a bluff beside the city airport. Stan Legg leads me on a hike through one of the buildings, a big-box warehouse where the federal government has all kinds of gear ready for the coming fire season.

The warehouse makes Home Depot look like the corner market. On our right, Legg points out, we have 4,000 shovels. And over here, 10,000 pairs of flame-resistant jeans, and 8,000 flame-resistant shirts. We pass shelves filled with saws, hand tools, hoses, tents, canisters of fire foam, generators, boots, gloves, hard hats, goggles, sleeping bags, fire shelters, pumps, chain-saw kits (including chaps) and backpackable toilets (for wilderness fires).

"This cache can equip 8,000 people in the field," says Legg, the beefy former firefighter in charge of this inventory, worth $20 million.

In the other buildings, high-level fire managers and "fire intelligence" experts set the national tactics for attacking wildfires. Meteorologists receive satellite signals from more than 1,100 robot weather stations placed throughout the forests nationwide, and make predictions about where fires will break out and how they will behave.

When a call comes, the Interagency Fire Center can mount an attack to rival the U.S. Marines. Orders flash out to dozens of regional bases to mobilize air and ground forces — a fleet that includes hundreds of helicopters and planes, thousands of fire engines, bulldozers, graders, boats and a workforce of about 17,000 people, not counting all the temps, contractors, regular military forces, and firefighters from as far away as Australia, who get enlisted during the hottest times.

The empire is flush with manpower and equipment, due to a spectacular sixfold increase in federal wildfire spending since 1991. Roughly half that increase has come with the National Fire Plan, a behemoth created three years ago, which pumps billions into firefighting, and hundreds of millions into "fuels reduction" — the most ambitious effort ever to do vegetation thinning, prescribed burns and other treatments on millions of acres, in the name of fire control.

Driving it all is a powerful alliance of Republicans, Democrats, Old West and New West — all the people who have homes in the woods, the recreation and tourism businesses that don’t want smoky skies and shut-down forests, cities that don’t want reservoirs dirtied with fire runoff, loggers who don’t want trees to go to waste, ranchers who don’t want livestock forage to burn, the private firefighting industry that taps the cash flow, the politicians who serve all of them, and the agencies that want funding, chiefly the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service.


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