Fire: Just Another Pork Barrel

Del Tartikoff

Last year the deadly Thirty Mile Fire in Washington state was initially brought under control early in the morning of July 10 by an elite firefighting crew.

At 9 a.m. they turned the fire scene over to a green mop-up squad of some 20 young firefighters. Within the hour a water-delivery helicopter was supposed to douse the site with thousands of gallons from the nearby Chewuch River.

It didn’t happen.

Instead, for over four hours, Forest Service officials debated the environmental pros and cons of scooping water out of the Chewuch and possibly endangering a fish. While they salaamed before the Endangered Species Act, the fire blazed up anew and began moving up a narrow canyon toward the young auxiliary firefighters. Only around 3 in the afternoon—six hours late—did the first load of bureaucrat-approved water arrive on the fire scene.

By that time the blaze was again out of control. Sweeping quickly up the canyon, it trapped and engulfed four young firefighters. They were Tom Craven, 30, and three part-time summer employees: Devin Weaver, 21. Jessica Johnson, 19, and Karen Fitzpatrick, 18.

All this was ghastly enough. But ever since then the Forest Service has been pumping out disingenuous public relations spin, blaming everyone and everything except the agency’s own deeply engrained culture of Endangered Species Act idolatry. This July the agency went so far as to dedicate to the four young fire victims a memorial that spins them as “dedicated firefighters [who] perished in a valiant effort to battle the Thirty Mile Fire.”

“The agency [spent] $32,000 to build the memorial,” observed syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin. “It is a cheap investment in bureaucratic propaganda at the expense of the dead. The truth is that the four firefighters perished because of the Forest Service’s gross incompetence.”

Actually, the USFS makes money off its incompetence. You know that whole build-up-of-fuels line that the Forest Service has been peddling for the last five years? It’s just one more bureaucratic money scam.

You’ve heard the rap: Supposedly because the Forest Service erroneously suppressed fires for some 90 years, there’s been a massive build-up of flammable fuels all across the American West. And because the practice turned the region into a virtual tinderbox, goes the line, we’ve had so many range and forest fires in Nevada and the West.

Well, it turns out this “hazardous fuel crisis” is mostly a crock. Free-market environmentalist Randall O’Toole, of Oregon’s Thoreau Institute, dug out the story. You can read his 54-page analysis, “Reforming the Forest Service,” at

Among O’Toole’s findings:

  • Fires today, the data show, are no worse than fires have ever been in drought periods. The 1998-through-2000 period was such a drought—occasioned by the Pacific Ocean’s La Niña cold water flow, long documented to help produce American droughts.
  • No scientific data backs up the allegation of a huge build-up, over the years, of “hazardous fuels.” In support of that theory Forest Service documents and scientific journals all cite a single publication, a report concluding that, because of historic fire suppression, “vegetation has accumulated, creating high levels of fuels for catastrophic wildfires and transforming much of the region into a tinderbox.” Who wrote this report? The General Accounting Office. As O’Toole points out, “The people at the General Accounting Office are accountants, not fire ecologists.”
  • Notwithstanding all of the Forest Service hype of “high fuel load” in the American West, the agency is still suppressing virtually all fires! Federal land managers can let fires burn only if they have 1) a written and approved fire management plan; 2) that plan allows fire for resource use; 3) the fire meets conditions specified in the plan; and 4) the fire was started by natural causes. Federal managers allow only 0.3 percent of fires to burn!

Turns out the Forest Service has big incentives to cook the books and deceive Congress. Fire is a huge cash cow for the agency, much bigger than timber, the agency’s official top moneymaker.

“Even in timber’s heyday,” writes O’Toole, “timber never contributed more than about $900 million a year to the Forest Service budget. Fire added more than $1.9 billion to the Forest Service’s 2001 budget and it will probably be more in 2002. Mainly because of fire, the Forest Service’s budget jumped nearly 50 percent in 2001.”

There are many good people in the U.S. Forest Service, but it’s become a case study in institutional dishonesty. It is time for the agency to go.

Del Tartikoff runs the web site and is a policy fellow of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.