BYU professor Steve Petersen set the forest on fire several times during his time with the park service in Bryce Canyon National Park.
“We’d take drip torches and walk through our Ponderosa forest and set it on fire,” said Petersen, who specializes in forests.
This firebug behavior was a “prescribed burn,” designed to solve a forest fire problem that began 100 years ago. Shifting national politics has made the problem worse at times, and officials in Utah are working on the next round of solutions.
Starting the fires
The first national fire policy rose from the ashes of a huge fire in 1910. Mike Ferris referred back to the blaze, which occurred just five years after the Forest Service was created, throughout his work with the National Fire Center at the Forest Service. A 3-million-acre fire burned across Idaho and Washington, and at least 85 people died, he said. Firefighters gave up fighting the blaze and simply evacuated whole towns.
Modern firefighting began when military equipment from the world wars was sent into the front lines of firefighting, said Patrick Shea, a University of Utah professor who once served as the Bureau of Land Management director.
The Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service used the new equipment to put out all forest fires as quickly as possible during the ’60s and ‘70s. Shea said this meant forests stopped getting the benefits of natural fires — burning out the small undergrowth.
Trying to return to a natural fire pattern, the Forest Service let fire in Yellowstone in 1988 burn unhindered. National outcry erupted when the fire grew out of control, burning down one-third of the park and threatening the historic Yellowstone lodges. Developing a fire strategy to protect a living forest ecosystem owned by local, state and federal entities — particularly because federal land is mostly operated by the Bureau of Land Management, not the Forest Service — would be a complex challenge.
America’s fire crisis
Between 1985 and 1989, the average number of fires annually stood at 56,837, compared to 83,082 between 2005 and 2009. From 1985 to 1989, the median number of acres burned per year was 2,719,162, compared to 8,689,389 acres between 2005 and 2009, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
The forests had become so overgrown that the trees were no longer healthy, and fires burned hotter and bigger.
The problem became obvious for Arizona fire chief Gary Hatch in the ‘90s. “In the Ponderosa forest, you should have a maximum of 40 trees per acre, and we’ve got 800 per acre in some areas now,” Hatch said. “I’ve never seen the forest as scary as it is now.”
Firefighters now try and “let it burn” to thin the forests if the fires are not dangerous to people and cities.
The Forest Service will fight all fires that begin with human accident, but the many summer fires that start with lightning strikes are less certain, Ferris said. The firefighters save urban areas but let the wilderness fires burn as safely as possible.
The Forest Service saw total firefighting costs first exceed $1 million in 2000. This has occurred every year since with only two exceptions, according to the Department of Interior.
Jason Curry, of the Utah Forest Service, is working to change the funding system for large-scale firefighting efforts, because the state is no exception to rising costs. The smaller fires that can be contained in a day or two — 98 percent of fires in Utah — are fought and funded entirely at the local level, but the larger fires pay no heed to political boundaries or varieties of land ownership, Curry said.
The extra hours fighting the large fires on federal land are billed to the Forest Service’s fire suppression fund of $1.4 billion. During seven of the last 10 years, firefighting costs have exceeded budget, by as much as $999 million in 2002. The 2013 season was particularly bad as well. It went over budget by $400 million, Ferris said.
The Forest Service makes up the budget shortfall with a fire transfer. This means all its agencies send unused funds for the rest of the fiscal year toward firefighting. Any planned projects — including projects to restore fire-damaged land or prevent future fires — may be pushed back to next year, Ferris said.
Petersen’s research shows unhealthy trees can lead to fires later. Trees in overgrown forests compete for sunlight and water, and the weaker forests fall more easily to fierce drought and a bark beetle infestation that has killed many of the West’s forests.
Small, “low-intensity” fires give the whole ecosystem a healthy “reset,” but forests that are overgrown or infested with bark beetle will go the way of the Yellowstone fire if a spark hits, Petersen said. The whole problem requires an integrated solution and plenty of science.
“We’re in a crisis with much of our forests in North America,” Petersen said.
Shea said similar national efforts have not succeeded. Sen. Ron Wyden, of Oregon, has introduced a bill to change funding for large fires. The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act received support from Sen. Mike Crapo (Idaho) and the White House but is unlikely to pass. It would fund the large fires as natural disasters.
Shea said the system of presidential appointments to agencies like the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management makes such radical solutions unlikely. He blamed both the current political gridlock and a long history of presidents from the East who are more comfortable with urban jungles and “political ecosystems” than the forest management problems of the West.
“Surprisingly forests are neither Republicans nor Democrats,” he said dryly.
He said about 60 percent of Western forests have not been damaged by drought or bark beetle, but of that number, another 20 percent is ready to burn because of overgrowth.
Solutions for Utah
Shea said Utah has had more success than other states because former Gov. John Huntsman Jr. required federal, state and local
resources to work together on fires.
“It takes political leadership to step up,” Shea said.
Utah may see some of this leadership in the upcoming legislative session. The Forest Service will propose a bill to create a Utah-wide fund for crisis fires, which amount to only 2 percent of Utah’s fires annually but cause the most damage, Curry said. Utah counties have already been paying into a general fund, but cities and towns have not, and many have had their budgets devastated by crisis fires.
For example, fires near Provo and Alpine in 2012 cost the city of Eagle Mountain $255,000, even though no structures were damaged and the city did not have to pay to fight the fire on land owned by the state, the federal government and Saratoga Springs. Repaying the sum would have required a tax increase. The town opted to dismantle the city fire department entirely and contract with a service from Salt Lake instead, said Linda Peterson, a spokeswoman for Eagle Mountain.
Curry said the proposed plan would prevent that from happening in the future, as the state of Utah would commit to taking on all non-federal firefighting costs. In exchange, the towns and cities would budget wildfire prevention measures for every year.
“For every dollar that you spend in the prevention categories you save $17 in the costs of fighting fires,” Curry said.
Public officials try to plan ahead enough for prevention plans, battling political agendas as well as high-intensity blazes. For Petersen, this meant setting the forest on fire.