On a Mises blog thread last year, I noted:
controlled burns might of course be useful in some places, especially along the WUI (wildland-urban interface), but Randal O`Toole at Cato has done a good job showing that generally fuel accumulation is not a major factor in the increasing number and severity of fires, but climate change, and the fuels build-up argument has been one that suits the forest service`s budget desires
On that post I cited and linked to a very interesting essay by O'Toole: The Perfect Firestorm; Bringing Forest Service Wildfire Costs under Control (Cato, April 30, 2007); allow me to post here for the interested reader a few excerpts that I consider most pertinent:
Blessed and cursed by a Congress that gives it a virtual if not literal blank check for fire protection, the Forest Service's fire spending is out of control. ... The Forest Service's program—which consists of spending close to $300 million per year treating hazardous fuels and as much as $2 billion a year preparing for and suppressing fires—will not restore the national forests to health or end catastrophic fire in most of those forests. In many forests it may do more harm than good.
Significant structural changes in the Forest Service are essential to control fire costs. ...
The Forest Service distorts its own research and other scientific information about fire ecology to justify huge budgets for hazardous fuels reduction and fire suppression. As the next section of this paper will show, the claim that a century of fire suppression has left most western forests highly vulnerable to fire is greatly exaggerated, which means that much of the billions of dollars that the Forest Service is spending today on fire is unjustified. …
If protecting homes and other structures is the goal, only a few million acres need treatment, most of which are nonfederal land.
If fuels are not the huge problem the Forest Service claims, then what is the explanation for recent large fires and record fire seasons? A recent article in Science concluded that the reason was drought, not fuels. The authors studied fire data since 1970 and found that the greatest increases in fires have been in fire regimes III, IV, and V, “where land-use histories have relatively little effect on fire risks.” Instead of fuels, they found a strong correlation between drought and fire. “Thus, although land-use history is an important factor for wildfire risks in specific forest types (such as some ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests), the broad-scale increase in wildfire frequency across the western United States has been driven primarily by sensitivity of fire regimes to recent changes in climate over a relatively large area.”43 Similar correlations between drought and fire have been found going back to 1931.44
Another explanation for the large fires in recent years can be found in the changes in firefighting strategies aimed at improving firefighter safety. To fight large fires, incident commanders often backburn tens of thousands of acres in an effort to create large firebreaks that wildfires cannot cross. One study of the Biscuit fire, the largest fire in Oregon history, estimated that 30 percent of the acres were burned by backburns, not the natural fire.45
All of this research—some of it done by Forest Service scientists—indicates that Forest Service leaders have greatly exaggerated the excess-fuels problem. By concentrating on this issue, they have deftly persuaded Congress to increase funding for hazardous fuel reduction in national forests from less than $8 million in 1992 to nearly $300 million in 2007. Meanwhile, because of the perceived threat of hazardous fuels, Congress has increased funding for presuppression (which the Forest Service now calls preparation) from less than $180 million per year in the early 1990s to more than $650 million per year since 2004.
FN43: 43. A. L. Westerling et al., “Warming and Earlier Spring Increase Western U.S. Forest Wildfire Activity,”
Science 313 (August 18, 2006): 943, www.tinyurl.com/2e88b9. [This is the report that I discussed in this previous post.]
More work by O'Toole (who is also associated with The Thoreau Institute) and other libertarians on wildfires is here: http://ti.org/fire.html.
More on the climate change connection to Western wildfires is in this previous post.