Disaster Unpreparedness: Wildfire Tragedy Sheds Light on Dangerous Budget Gaps

4:05 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Michael Young / Flickr / Creative Commons)

They went in as a team and perished as heroes. From what ongoing investigations have been able to determine, the 19 elite firefighters of the Prescott Fire Department’s Granite Mountain Hotshots followed safety protocols amid the ferocious wildfire at Yarnell Hill in Arizona. But evidently the fast-changing wind conditions doomed them.

We may never know exactly what went wrong in the hotshots’ final moments. But we can know that underlying their misfortune were human-driven risks that have long shaped the Western landscape.

Beneath the immediate disaster—a lightning-sparked blaze that consumed several thousand acres—lurk factors that have for years exacerbated wildfire hazards: global warming and chronic drought, along with severe resource gaps for the public servants serving as the first line of defense.

Federal authorities report that wildfires consume twice as much land annually as they did forty years ago, as rising temperatures and parched vegetation transform Western landscapes into the perfect tinderbox. Risks have also multiplied as rural housing developments continue to sprawl and more people move into harm’s way. Meanwhile, changing climates tend to intensify the brutal heat conditions and lengthen the fire season, which raises direct risks for firefighters on the front lines.

At the same time, fire-management resources are drying up. This fiscal year’s cuts to the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management budget shrank its forces from 10,500 to 10,000 firefighters.

These fiscal strains also impede efforts toward comprehensive, sustainable wildfire control. With tightly limited overall resources, the Forest Service strains to pay for frontline fire suppression, while longer-term wildfire programs are depleted. This makes it harder overall to invest in mitigating future hazards and prevent catastrophes.

Forest Service spokesperson Jennifer Jones tells In These Times: “Over the last few years, budgets for [reducing] hazardous fuels have been declining–and are expected to decline further.” Along with the budgets, the acreage treated for fuel reduction (mainly by thinning brush and setting contained fires) has also fallen in recent years. Meanwhile, says, Jones, “millions of acres are at risk of extreme wildfire due to climate change, drought, insect infestation, invasive species and other factors.” Yet coping with future disaster risks would involve sustained, proactive investments in measures such as restoring wild landscapes to strengthen natural fire resilience and helping communities build adaptive protective infrastructure—not just emergency responses.

Testifying before Congress in June, Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell described pressures on the agency to stretch limited funds to cover diverse complementary needs: “When you have a constrained budget situation the money has to come from some place, so that’s why it’s so hard.”

The funding crunch extends beyond top-of-the-line federal responders like the hotshots to state and local  firefighting budgets. Rick Swan, State Supervisor Director of CDF Firefighters of the International Association of Firefighters, tells In These Times that state and local fire stations, which often support federal firefighting, are not seen as major funding priorities, in part because extinguishing rural fires may seem “less glamorous” than, say, crime-fighting operations. Some politicians, he says, show more interest in lavishing high-tech equipment on municipal police, while community fire departments struggle to keep their stations fully staffed or to set up decent radio equipment. (The New York Times reported on signs of communication technology problems facing hotshots as well.)

But if firefighting infrastructure and personnel are allowed to erode, Swan says, “Good people [go] to other jobs.” Then, he says, private contractors move in to fill the gap.

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