The perverse economics of  the Colorado wildfire.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
June 13 2002 2:05 PM

Smokey the Businessman

Only you can make millions preventing forest fires.

Fighting forest fires
Fighting forest fires

The Hayman Fire, which has forced thousands of Coloradans from their homes and layered Denver with thick smoke, has already burned more than 87,000 acres and racked up $20 million in firefighting bills. Because the blaze may not be contained for weeks—given its early-in-the-season start and Colorado's drought, it might even burn all summer—the Hayman Fire will likely be the most expensive fire in state history, and perhaps the most expensive in U.S. history.

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And yet little actual firefighting has been done. The fire is so hot that firefighters have largely stood back and admired the 400-foot flames as they rip through stands of Ponderosa pine, piñon juniper, and Gambel oak. "There's such a tremendous amount of heat that you just can't put firefighters on the ground in front of it," a fire information officer said. Instead, the 500-odd firefighters on duty at Hayman are restricting their work to small backfires—fires set in the path of the main blaze in an effort to deprive the main fire of fuel.

So, one might ask: Where is $5 million a day going? If the Hayman Fire is anything like the blazes I visited last summer while working on a book about wild-land fire, the answer is simple: to private contractors. In the past 10 years, wild-land firefighting has transformed from a federal government responsibility to a massive, extremely lucrative, private enterprise. The feds provide some of the basic infrastructure, such as maintaining the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho (the Pentagon of forest fires), operating smoke-jumper bases, and hiring ground-based firefighters who do much of the grunt work.

But the real bucks are in private contracting. The Hayman Fire, for instance, has on duty five "Type 1" helicopters—big birds such as the Sikorsky CH-54 Skycranes, which look like giant dragonflies as they lug buckets of water over fires in an effort to douse hot spots. Working ahead of the fire are four big retardant bombers, usually military surplus aircraft such as C-130 transports or Neptune patrol bombers. (One company still flies four World War II-vintage B-24 Liberators.) These drop the pink slurry that coats houses and trees and slows the progress of a fire. None of these aircraft comes cheaply: They cost $6,000 an hour, and in most cases their operators get a $250,000 check just to hang around for the summer. The aviation bill in Colorado is probably between $500,000 and $700,000 a day, and may grow.

That's just the start. The Hayman Fire camp has a big mobile kitchen that can serve up to 1,500 people a day. It's privately owned; its operators get about $40 a day for each firefighter they feed. The camp will have shower facilities, a laundry, perhaps a commissary—all private. Toilets need servicing (private). Bottled water by the thousands of gallons will be consumed, all supplied by local vendors. Chances are some of the crews at the Hayman or any other fire are privately hired, as are most of the crews that will move in afterward to begin replanting. And any fire attracts a school of pilot fish that range from local contractors with a bulldozer hoping to snag a two-week contract at $2,000 a day to entrepreneurs selling Hayman Fire T-shirts to crews for $15 a pop.

Privatizing firefighting was supposed to cut costs. But it has done nothing of the sort. Last summer, which was an "average" fire season, was the most costly on record. Nearly $700 million was spent fighting fires—$230 million more than budgeted. The poster child for that fire season was a small blaze in Oregon called the Craggie Fire. Although burning in wilderness and no threat to people or homes, fire crews and helicopters were thrown into battle. The final bill for the 2,700-acre fire: $2.6 million, an average of $9,455 per acre. During the 2001 fire season it cost an average of $1,340 per acre to fight fires on the national forests—270 percent more than it did in 2000.

Even more troubling is that throwing those sorts of resources at big fires accomplishes little except the creation of a big bill. Few, if any, large fires are extinguished. In nearly all cases if a blaze exceeds a few hundred acres and finds the wind at its back, firefighters can only try to protect a few houses or perhaps chivy the fire away from particular areas. And even that's problematic; once a big fire gets rolling, moving at 2 or 3 miles per hour across a front that's 10 or 12 miles wide, the preferred strategy is to get the hell out of the way and hope it rains. But video of fire-charred houses is sure to top the evening news, putting enormous political pressure on fire managers. So, no fire manager in his or her right mind turns cheap. If a helicopter is available, it flies. "There just isn't much pressure to control costs once a fire gets going," says Bruce McDowell, who is working on a study of fire-suppression costs for the National Academy of Public Administration.

Besides, for many of those working on a fire, it's the only chance they have to take action without running a gauntlet of environmental impact statements. "On a fire, you really get to do something," one Forest Service employee told me last summer, as we careened around a big Montana blaze in his Dodge Ram pickup. OK, maybe "doing" costs taxpayers $1 million a day, but it sure is a lot of fun.

Most seriously, though, is that putting out big fires only masks the real problem. Most of the current fire economy is set up to go after the big blazes, where accounting goes out the window as soon as flames appear on the horizon. But the West's forests are in lousy shape because of fire suppression—they're overgrown with brush and young trees, ready to burst into flames whether from lightning or a weenie roast gone bad. Wallace Covington, a forest-restoration expert at Northern Arizona University, told me last month that perhaps as many as 100 million acres of the West are in poor health and prone to fire.

Meanwhile, the attention and dollars thrown at big-ticket fires like the Hayman draw attention and funding away from the unglamorous grunt work of cutting brush and setting prescribed fires. Even that hard labor is not cheap—more than $1,000 an acre—but the option is to wait for more Hayman fires and more bills of $50 million and up for a single blaze. And when that happens, the only ones enjoying it will be the helicopter crews and caterers.

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