Environment

When wildfire smoke clears, big money changes hands

Fire prevention budgets are shrinking, but suppression and rebuilding funds — some to private contractors — are rising

Kathy Montgomery holds a charred, chipped teacup containing about $4 worth of burnt coins from her neighbor's home in Yarnell, Ariz., the town that was ravaged by a wildfire in June.
Joe Sharkey for Al Jazeera America

YARNELL, Ariz. – A pitiful, hand-lettered sign is placed on a wall behind the cash register at a small grocery store just up the highway from the center of Yarnell, Ariz., reading, “Sorry But We Cannot Accept Burnt Coins in Payment.”

“The bank won’t take burnt coins,” the cashier said, shrugging.

It’s perhaps the saddest but simplest illustration of the contentious accounting and disputes over money that emerge once the intense period of mourning and shock fades, after the huge wildfires that are happening more often these days. And while the U.S. Forest Service’s budget to prevent such fires is shrinking, Congress instead continues to pour money into fire suppression — including to private contractors — and into rebuilding in places where construction arguably should not have happened in the first place.

There were two awful aspects to the Yarnell fire. The most horrific was the death of the 19 firefighters, members of an elite “hotshot” crew that operated as a wildfire commando platoon within the fire company of Prescott, the closest big town, 35 miles to the northeast over a treacherous, hairpin road through the mountains.

But Yarnell also is struggling to get back on its feet economically. The fire burned through 8,000 acres and seemed to pick and choose among homes, consuming some, sparing others. In all, more than 100 homes were destroyed.

“The cup was from my neighbor’s good china. Her house is gone,” said Kathy Montgomery, holding a charred, chipped teacup that looked like it had come out of an archeological dig, while she stood by a booth at a calf auction and barbecue last month. In the cup was about $4 worth of blackened coins, some of the quarters fused together by the intense heat of the recent wildfire. Montgomery was part of a community group called Yarnell Rising, which was collecting donations to assist neighbors who had lost their homes in the horrific fire.

While trial lawyers focus on litigation in Prescott on behalf of the families of the dead, some people down the highway in Yarnell, supported by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, continued to expressed outrage over the U.S. government’s decision not to declare the town a disaster area eligible for federal aid because most of the burned homes had fire insurance, and local and state agencies could handle supplemental relief.

'Wildland urban interface'

Rapacious development in the so-called “wildland urban interface” — places where houses exist on private land in close proximity to fire-prone public lands — has been growing steadily over the last three decades. A particularly large increase has been seen in the West, where drought conditions have also made forests more likely to burn out of control. Costs to fight those fires have been skyrocketing, now averaging more than $3 billion a year in federal fire-suppression spending — more than triple the yearly average during the 1990s, according to a report in June (PDF) by the nonprofit research firm Headwaters Economics.

Looking at the 2003-2004 fiscal year, a report by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Agriculture said that in nine out of 10 of the major wildfires analyzed, “protecting private property” was the major goal of the fire-suppression effort.

Much of the growth of development in fire-prone areas in the West, according to Headwaters Economics, has been driven by people who wish to live or have vacation homes in “areas rich in natural amenities, resulting in extensive land conversion adjacent to lakes, national parks, wilderness areas, seashores and forests.” The firm said, “A principal reason for the escalating cost of wildland firefighting is the growing number of homes being built in the wildland urban interface.”

There is plenty of room to build more houses in those places, and little political will to impose limits on that development. 

In February, Headwaters reported, “84 percent of private lands near fire-prone public forests in the West today remain undeveloped.”

And the fires keep getting costlier and more frequent.

The six worst wildfire seasons since 1960 have occurred since 2000, Headwaters reported, noting a “lack of cost-accountability” imposed on those who build homes in the wildland interfaces, where they have confidence that firefighters will make all-out efforts to save homes. Meanwhile, the suppression costs are borne across the board by American taxpayers.

“Costs of fire suppression have increased to consume nearly half of the entire Forest Service budget,” Thomas Tidwell, the chief of U.S. Forest Service, said at a Senate hearing just five days before the Yarnell catastrophe in June. In 1991, by comparison, fire-suppression spending was 13 percent of the budget.

More than 40 percent of the vast areas of land managed by the Forest Service, Tidwell said, lack adequate budgets for clearing dangerous brush buildup in the areas on the immediate periphery of forested public lands characterized by the increasing “spread of homes and communities into areas prone to wildfire,” as the Forest Service puts it.

“More than 70,000 communities are now at risk from wildfire,” Tidwell said.

At what cost?

Wildfires with enormous costs are now routine. In August, the massive Rim Fire in the Sierra Nevada Mountains at the edge of Yosemite National Park spread from an area where the Forest Service had identified eight districts badly in need of brush clearing. Congress declined to fund those projects, while continuing to insist on the diversion of more money to fire suppression, including spending on contracts for aerial firefighting efforts and post-fire services.

CoreLogic, a consulting firm, calculated last year that in the 13 Western states, more than 740,000 homes, estimated combined property value of $136 billion, are at high or very high wildfire risk.

The fire-scarred foundation of a home destroyed in the Waldo Canyon wildfire last June stands in the foreground as new homes are built in the Parkside development around it northwest of Colorado Springs, Colo.
The fire-scarred foundation of a home destroyed in the Waldo Canyon wildfire last June stands in the foreground as new homes are built in the Parkside development around it northwest of Colorado Springs, Colo.
David Zalubowski/AP

But there is a flip side on the wildfire economic coin. Fighting and recovering from wildfires means jobs and construction and other local spending form a “silver lining” to major wildfires, the Colorado-based monthly High Country News grimly noted in June. The article considered the 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire in the foothills of Boulder, Colo., which destroyed 169 homes — many of them unremarkable houses subsequently rebuilt from insurance money as “$1.1 million mansions in a full-tilt construction frenzy courtesy of a raging wildfire.”

Money spent on suppression, support services and rebuilding contributes to local employment and wages, said a report last year by the Institute for a Sustainable Environment at the University of Oregon.

“Wildfires on Western public lands have increased in both size and cost,” the report said, while “a large proportion of wildfire-suppression costs are allocated to private vendors.”

But firefighters are in constant peril in a culture that demands they rush into the flames to save homes. In Prescott, a detailed report released Sept. 28 by the state Forestry Division described the final day of the hotshot platoon amid commotion and communications breakdowns. The report said nothing conclusive about the last 30 minutes, when the 19 firefighters unaccountably left a relatively safe position on a ridge and plunged downward into a canyon thick with chaparral, where they died trying to get away from a wall of flame that came at them at the speed of a trotting horse.

The crew had perhaps rushed into the dangerous canyon “because of the perceived threat to the community of Yarnell,” the report said. “The primary focus of operational activity on that day was on structure protection.”

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