On July 22, 2016, an illegal campfire in Garrapata State Park in Big Sur ignited the Soberanes Fire, which burned 132,127 acres in three months and ultimately became the most costly firefighting effort in U.S. history to date: $262 million.
But a recent report by Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics & Ecology – a nonprofit whose mission is to promote safe, ethical and ecological fire management – argues it shouldn’t have been so costly, and criticizes several aspects of the U.S. Forest Service’s firefighting effort.
Chief among them was the use of “heavy metal” resources – mainly air tankers and dozers – that the report shows had little effect in halting the fire’s spread, and drove the firefight to an average cost of $2 million a day.
Some of that effort, the report shows, involved dropping retardant lines in areas the fire never reached, and bulldozing containment lines on remote ridges in the wilderness.
The report says initial, aggressive suppression efforts were warranted to protect people and property, but that once Cal Fire left the unified command, the Forest Service’s spending went up.
Most damning is the report’s assertion that the agency spent so much not because it needed to, but because the agency wanted to spend all the additional funding – $700 million – Congress had appropriated to it for the fiscal year ending Oct. 1. In making this argument, the report shows the total acreage burned in 2015, 10 million acres, was nearly double what burned in 2016 (a slow wildfire year) but that spending for suppression both years was about $2 billion, because the Forest Service “[drained] the remainder of its budget on the Soberanes Fire.”
The FUSEE report criticizes Congress for “essentially a blank check policy for funding for funding wildfire suppression, and fails to demand for any fiscal accountability about the agency’s suppression overspending.”
Also in the report’s crosshairs is the Los Padres National Forest’s management plan, which calls for aggressive suppression efforts of all wildfires regardless of proximity to structures.
“It is inevitable that another fire will burn in the Ventana Wilderness area sometime in the future,” the report reads. “At what point will agency administrators revise the Forest Plan to allow alternative responses to wilderness wildfires in order to spare taxpayers the costs and damages of another long suppression siege?”
Putting firefighters and contractors in harm’s way is also called out, as one dozer operator was killed in a rollover accident in the firefight, and two contractors and a firefighter were “severely injured.” Moreover, the report states, “at times there were so many aircraft operating over the fire… flying in mountainous terrain in smoky conditions” that it could have led to a mid-air collision.
The Forest Service did not respond to a request for comment before the Weekly’s deadline, but the agency provided the following statement to the Associated Press: “Protection of people first and then resources are our primary considerations. Every fire is evaluated to determine the appropriate strategy. We continually look for opportunities to improve outcomes and accountability and to find more cost-efficient and effective methods of managing wildfires.”