Mitigating America’s Wildfire Threat

Having spent much of my adult life in California fighting some of the most catastrophic fires in America’s history, about this time every year, as the wildfire threat kicks into high gear, I face the same question from federal, state, and local officials. “What can be done in the near future, knowing that fires will inevitably ignite, to mitigate the threat?” The devastating 2020 wildfires and the current repeat occurring in 2021 in the U.S and abroad have again elevated this to a top-of-mind subject throughout the fire-plagued western states.

Photo by Steve Whitby

My answer to this question ten months or ten years from now will remain unchanged and unequivocal. First, set aside the root causes – global warming and irresponsible land management practices. That’s right, if we’re talking near future, set aside the actual root causes. Because until real progress is made on both issues, they are nothing more than highly politicized distractions that will not be “fixed” in a few years. And the distraction serves to bury real-world, practical, and affordable mitigation solutions for the near term.

Of course, policymakers worldwide must remain focused on aggressively seeking solutions to these core causes of the growing wildfire threat. This is the only long-term hope for mitigating the threat. But, like all wildland firefighters, I leave these important topics to the scientific community and policymakers to solve. I suppose if I had one message for the Biden administration as it is staring down its first wildfire season. In that case, it is to compartmentalize and establish a balanced commitment to both long and short-term wildfire solutions.  

10 Tanker Air Carrier has been working out of San Bernardino in California for the 2021 fire season. Photo by James Dunn.

Climate change and land management reform must be attacked on an equal footing with how we attack massive wildfires today. Today, the wildfire threat has escalated to the extent that new labels such as “Giga-Fire,” categorized as fires that destroy more than 100,000 acres, have been coined to define the new normal. That of massive, fast-burning fires that pose a real and quantifiable threat to America’s economic security.    

Can the threat of Giga-Fires be outright, fully mitigated through some silver bullet fire suppression solution? Certainly not. It’s too hot, too dry; there’s too much fuel on the ground, and when the winds kick up out west. These massive fires will develop. Can we dramatically reduce the number of massive fires? Absolutely, yes. And the starting point for doing so is a pragmatic, honest assessment of how America manages today’s wildfires at both the federal and state levels.  

That assessment must start with the fact that over 70,000 wildland fires ignite each year and the simple logic that he who owns the land owns responsibility for both wildfire risk mitigation before the fires start and suppression after they start. However, that sound logic runs headlong into several challenges. First, there are many proprietors among the 640 million acres of land owned by the U.S. government. It’s an alphabet soup of acronyms – BLM, DOI, NPS, USFS, etc.  

Coulson’s Tanker 132 drops a line of retardant in California. Photo by Jeremy Ulloa

Mapping federal land ownership by proprietor creates a complex tapestry of fed-owned lands adjacent to and intersecting with non-federal lands. Yet, wildfires don’t respect borders or property lines; they leap from one hillside to another based on wind, fuel (dead trees, etc.), and other factors. The fire igniting in the morning on lands controlled by the National Park Service can and will find its way by midday to the Department of Interior, state, or privately-owned land.    

Relative to near-term wildfire risk management and responsibility for suppressing fires on federal lands, no one federal entity is in charge. A proper risk assessment must also recognize the reality of state, local, and private land adjacency to federal lands, which brings into play countless non-federal fire suppression players. It is our federalist model of shared federal/state collaboration on full display, and the model is failing dramatically in terms of mitigating the wildfire threat amidst these jurisdictional realities. Without one lead federal agency in charge of taking on these challenges and working hand in hand with the states to re-boot the current model and tear down the predominant silo mentality (“not my land, not my problem”), there is little hope for reform. 

Several solid interagency entities in place, the National Interagency Fire Center and the National Wildfire Coordinating group drive collaboration. But their missions are by no means to drive policy reform; they implement, not create policy. The country is left with a situation in which every landowner is in charge; thus, nobody is in control. When nobody is in charge at the federal level, reform is impossible. Whether a “wildfire czar” is appointed for the near term or the new administration establishes some other empowered, leading entity, the goal of lessening the near-term threat will continue to flounder in the current state. Maintaining the status quo relative to federal and state wildfire suppression strategies assures several specific outcomes – year after year, more economic and natural resource damage, and more loss of life.   

The Kaman K-Max is being used on several fire grounds in California in 2021. Photo by Michael Piper.

Among many communities in the western states, there is a misperception that the country does have one lead federal agency responsible for wildfire suppression – the U.S. Forest Service. And that the USFS is essentially the 911 call center when fires break out in our treasured forests. Further, the agency maintains a vast army of forestry aides/technicians (firefighters) ready to deploy on the ground and a massive fleet of aircraft that will quickly swoop in to help contain the fires from above. One need only glance at the USFS’s stated mission to understand how this myth has no basis in reality. USFS exists to “sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.”  

Nowhere is the word “wildfire” found in the USFS mission statement or vision. Yet, over the years, this agency has been increasingly tasked as the closest thing to being the lead wildfire manager at the federal level. While more than half of USFS’s annual budget is now dedicated to fire suppression, this approximately $1 billion spent on suppression is a paltry sum when considered in the context of the annual economic damage driven by fires.  

By no means do I suggest this is a federal problem alone. According to U.S. government data, of the approximately 70,000 wildfires that ignite each year in the U.S., about half start on federal lands and the other half on state, local, and privately-owned lands. Despite this nearly even share of wildfires’ fed/state geographic ownership, it is impossible to envision a successful state-led reform initiative. This is a national crisis. While the citizens of Pennsylvania aren’t threatened every year by massive Giga-Fires, they certainly are helping foot the bill and reap the consequences of impact to the environment.  

This point is precisely reinforced by how, in October 2020, Australia was able to deliver a set of sweeping reforms to their national and territorial wildfire risk reduction model. This landmark set of reforms within the “Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements Report” would never have been possible without leadership at the national level.

OCFA’s 412 fights a fire in southern California. Photo by Ryan Winner.

The assessment of the current state of the threat must next consider what we do know and what we don’t know relative to the wildfires. There is no shortage of data to define how dire and costly the wildfire threat is today. We know that the costs – direct, indirect, and long-term induced costs – lead to a nearly quarter trillion-dollar annual, negative impact on America’s GDP. That’s $250,000,000,000.

We know the core causes, and we know our children’s children will be grappling with them years from now. We know how many fires are igniting every year. We know they’re burning millions of acres owned by various entities. We know the fires are burning hotter, faster, and longer. We understand that the total spent by all federal agencies combined in suppressing wildfires each year is approximately $2 billion. Again, a relatively paltry sum when compared to the annual economic impact.  

We lack critical information and data on the most vital topic related to near-term wildfire risk mitigation and reform dialogue – to what extent are we containing and controlling fires before they become massive events. Mega and Giga-Fires are impossible for man to “extinguish,” only rain and other factors can achieve this objective. A plan to reform wildfire policies and budgets to support near-term success must be grounded in one basic principle that any experienced wildland firefighter will confirm. Our only hope is to attack fires immediately as they’re identified and sustain that attack before they grow. It’s called “rapid initial attack” and “extended attack” in wildland firefighter vernacular.   

There are only a few questions that must be asked if the nation is to make meaningful reforms. To what extent are the country’s wildfires being attacked quickly, on the ground and from the air, in the initial hours after igniting? For example, of the 20 most damaging fires in the past few years, how many were attacked aggressively in the initial 1-6 hours? And, if this readily available data proves we are not attacking fires quickly, what is the reason? Lack of clear firefighting policy, lack of resources, or both? These are already hotly debated topics among my fellow wildland firefighters. Year after year, our postmortems at the end of wildfires season always come back to these questions and the frustration they elicit among wildland firefighters due to resource scarcity.

Policymakers have an opportunity to immediately achieve major success on the road to reform wildfire risk reduction. By simply demanding data-based answers to these questions, a clear signal will be sent to the wildland firefighting community that change is on the horizon, that our elected officials recognize the problem. The data is available. The analysis needed will cost nothing essentially. And, the resounding applause from the firefighting community will be unmistakable, simply by officials in Washington and the state capitals asking these questions and demanding answers.

This vital initial analysis will naturally lead to a discussion of the range of resources needed. The firefighter on the ground and the tools they use are the lynchpins; they are singularly responsible for extinguishing fires. But when a fire suddenly explodes into a more significant incident threatening to escalate to mega or Giga status given the weather and other conditions, the firefighter on the ground relies on the only support available – aircraft.  

We do have some, albeit limited, data regarding aerial firefighting effectiveness, but America is woefully handicapped by a lack of comprehensive data related to aerial firefighting. From a study released in early 2020, we know that rapid initial attack of fires by LATs and VLATs has the dramatic, positive effect of reducing the duration of time that fires burn. It is, in many cases, the difference between fires that last half a day versus multiple days or weeks. Duration, along with intensity and other factors such as whether fire burns into or near developed areas such as housing tracts, directly correlates to the ultimate cost.  

We know roughly how many firefighting aircraft America has at its disposal. USFS, for example, has 18 fixed-wing aircraft guaranteed to be available under what are called exclusive use contracts with private industry. And USFS has approximately 100 helicopters available through similar contracts. And we do know from a USFS report released in early 2020 that, in the case of large air tankers, hundreds of requests by fire incident commanders for air tankers are unable to be filled, or “UTF” using the fire aviation term.

One state alone, California, owns or contracts for more fixed-wing aircraft than the entire USFS fleet. In 2020, approximately 40 fixed-wing aircraft were deployed by California to attack the historic wildfire threat. Yet, more typical of the state situation, Colorado had only five fixed-wing aircraft flying missions in 2020.

This is all to make one critical point – even limited available data points unmistakably to obvious, head-scratching disconnects between the scale of threat and scale of assets available to deploy rapidly to attack fires. A more comprehensive and, again essentially no-cost, data effort would yield answers vital to informing reform efforts, including:

  • What is an adequate, cost/benefit balanced aerial firefighting fleet size and makeup for both the federal government and fire-prone states?  
  • How do we develop that cost/benefit metric? Indeed in an age of supercomputers, advanced data analytics, and artificial intelligence, this analysis could be rapidly completed by many federal government experts. Providing a credible model for spending ‘x’ to save ‘y’ in terms of the ultimate cost to taxpayers.
  • For example, if America’s aerial firefighting fleet doubled in size tomorrow, what would the upfront cost be, and what does the data tell us about the potential savings?

Full transparency, I admit that some of these questions are posed rhetorically. America does not have near the aerial fleet necessary to meet the threat. Any experienced wildland firefighter would confirm that today’s aerial fleet investment is a classic case of penny-wise, pound-foolish policies and budgets.

Nevertheless, the pursuit of information and hard data is the only means by which this reality can be overturned, leading to wildfire risk reduction.    

My final message for the Biden administration is to urge the adoption of a data-obsessed mentality regarding wildfire policies. I firmly believe that the individuals who take this challenge on at the federal level, who champion engagement with the western states in particular and adopt a data-driven reform model, will be heralded as a visionary, effective leader focused on what is an annual American crisis.  

Dan Reese a career firefighting veteran with 32 years of service, 25 of those with CAL FIRE where he retired as a deputy chief and chief of the department’s Tactical Air Operations Division. Reese is regarded as an authority on the use of air tankers in aerial firefighting operations as the architect of CAL FIRE’s first VLAT program deployment. 

Reese also served as the CEO of Global Super Tanker Services LLC. Who operated the only Boeing 747 VLAT aircraft. Dan currently serves as president of the International Wildfire Consulting Group and an editorial writer for AerialFire Magazine.

AerialFire Staff
AerialFire Staff
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