Even with everything we hurl at the flames, Western states keep setting new records for homes lost and acreage burned. The federal government alone, not counting the state governments and other entities, has spent more than $3 billion per year on this war, on average since 2002, according to the Congressional Research Service. The U.S. Forest Service has tilted its budget toward preparedness and suppression, and the president's 2014 budget calls for a 27 percent increase in the firefighting funding.
Meanwhile, budgets for fuels reduction -- fire prevention -- are cut, robbing the future to pay for the present. In the 2014 budget, for instance, fuels-reduction programs take a 37 percent hit, down to $201 million. The funding shift also reduces support for campground services, research projects, trail maintenance and other worthy -- and popular -- endeavors.
The prescribed burning and forest-thinning projects that fit within the budget are often stymied by environmental activists and locals complaining about smoke. Or severe fire risk interferes, as the prescribed-burning season grows ever shorter. Government agencies cannot catch up to the problem: There isn't enough money or political will.
Even though safety practices have improved, each year between eight and 30 wildland firefighters are killed in the war (download one report here and another here covering a longer period.) It might not sound like a large number, but it takes a terrible toll in the families and the close-knit firefighting community. No one would be surprised if the toll rises. And regardless of the numbers, there's a principle of homeowners taking responsibility.
It’s great that many homeowners are trying to make their homes more fire-resistant, but we need to tell them, we can no longer commit to saving their homes if their efforts fall short. They chose to live out there, and they -- and their insurance companies -- must accept the consequences. We must also urge our politicians to accept reality when more homes are lost. The courts should take extreme conditions into account, too, when homeowners file lawsuits charging more should have been done to save their property.
The decisions about when to fight, and when not to, should be made by the firefighters, on the front lines as well as the incident commanders and the top brass who set strategy. Of course, most fires would still be fought, most houses saved, and heroic action would still be taken to save human life. But when there are extreme conditions -- record heat and drought, the most challenging winds and topography, all factors in previous deadly fires like Colorado's Storm King Mountain in 1994 (14 killed), Montana's 1949 Mann Gulch (13 killed) and now Yarnell Hill -- it would become a shout: Stand down!
A friend just wrote me about the time she tried to stand down: "About a month after Storm King, I had a 20-person interagency crew in Idaho. At a briefing in the morning I refused my crew's assignment and tried to reason why: same set up as Mann Gulch, Storm King, et cetera. I was told, 'Fine, we'll have another crew take it.' I very boldly said, 'Either way, it's 20 dead people.'" Her stand triggered a long discussion and a safer way was found. Every firefighter like her who just says "No" needs support from the fire community and the public.
My family has a northwestern Montana cabin that was nearly destroyed by wildfire in 2007. The cabin was built by my grandfather and his sons and has been a source of joy for five generations, but it is not worth the life of a single firefighter. I told my Forest Service district ranger that no firefighters should defend it. Fortunately, a wind change saved us in 2007. If the woods around here blaze up again this year, I am prepared to let the cabin go. Consider it the most effective insurance I can buy for the fire crews.
John N. Maclean has written four books about lethal wildfires, most recently The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57, published last January. Maclean's previous HCN pieces include a 2010 HCN magazine cover story on arsonists who ignite wildfires. His Facebook page has some additional comments from firefighters.