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The costs of wildland fire suppression

Issue isn’t as black and white as "let it burn" or "full out suppression"

by: Jeff Walter - Jeff Walter is the Ochoco National Forest Supervisor. He can be reached at: 
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Over the next several months as we approach the 2007 fire season, you're likely to start reading and hearing more about the need to reduce fire suppression costs. Before the rumor mills get in full gear, I'd like to provide a little background on the situation and my take on what to expect.
   Over the last 20 years the Forest Service has been persistently challenged by fire management costs. Contributing factors to these cost challenges include the expanding wildland-urban interface (WUI), the general forest health conditions (many dense, overstocked stands) and climate change. As a result, fire suppression is the fastest growing account in the forest service. When we look at the amount we spend on suppression as a percentage of the total FS budget we see that in 1991 it was 13 percent, 2000 was 21 percent, 2006 was 40 percent and by 2008 it's predicted to be 48 percent. Nationally in 2006, we spent 1.5 billion dollars on fire suppression.
   Because of these escalating costs, other agency programs are suffering and our ability to care for the land and serve the people is compromised. There is just simply less money available, for example, to maintain roads and recreation facilities, conduct vegetation management or restore fish and wildlife habitat.
   Various internal and external groups have studied these costs and provided over 300 recommendations to reduce costs. These were consolidated into 47 management efficiencies dealing with leadership, operations and management that could start to be implemented in 2007. A sample of these actions include: increased oversight from the regional and Washington offices on large incidents; establishment of a definite budget for each fire incident; more nationally shared resources such as hotshot crews; a revised aviation strategy to ensure prudent and efficient use of aircraft; expanded knowledge, skill and ability of agency administrators responsible for managing large fires; and more emphasis on choosing the Appropriate Management Response (AMR).
   I'd like to elaborate a little more on the appropriate management response. Managers will be asked to look hard at this and to consider all of the options available. It is not as black and white as either "full out suppression" or "let it burn." It may be that we try to contain the fire within acceptable boundaries without suppressing it. Or, we might control a section of a large fire and only contain another part. Rumors that the forest service will start letting many large fires burn to save costs is simply not true. We will still prioritize protecting life and property as well as firefighter and public safety and we will continue to strive to protect valuable natural resources. We will also continue to emphasize initial attack (where we are successful 98-99 percent of the time) to keep ignition starts from becoming large fire incidents.
   However, as we continue to protect life, property and resources, we need to be fiscally responsible and look hard at cost efficiencies in our fire suppression effort. Other important agency programs are dependent on it.