When It Comes to Wildfires, Collaboration Causes Confusion

The strategy that's improved the management of fires has, paradoxically, made it harder to know who’s really in charge of putting them out.
October 2015
Donald F. Kettl
By Donald F. Kettl  |  Columnist
Sid Richardson Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin

United States Forest Service fire captain David Ruhl loved tackling big wildfires. So there was little surprise when he volunteered to leave his wife and two children behind in South Dakota’s Black Hills to help California during its monstrous fire season. In late July, while he was strategizing on how to fight a particularly nasty one in the Modoc National Forest, a wall of flames suddenly trapped him. Search teams found his body the next day.

Ruhl’s death was a tragic reminder of the enormous toll that the wildfires raging across the West have taken. But it was also a reminder of the remarkable partnerships that have emerged to fight them. Joining Ruhl were other feds, including expert interagency “hotshot” teams. They worked closely with local firefighters and Air Force C-130 air tankers. Private contractors provided pilots and more aircraft, ranging from small helicopters to giant air tankers. Coordinating everyone was Cal Fire, the state’s premier wildfire agency. It was a genuine mosaic of federalism, with the intricate boundaries lost amid the smoke of the worst fire season on record.

But this impressive show of collaboration was hard won. It represents decades of evolving strategies, from the 1950s, when fighting large-scale forest fires involved teams of hikers who drove to the scene in trucks, to today’s firefighters, who are aided by aerial tankers that can drop 20,000 gallons -- enough for 800 10-minute showers -- in a single attack.

The advances go beyond technique. Training has vastly improved and has become more standardized so that firefighters know what their colleagues know. Strategy has evolved to incorporate the “incident command system,” so that leaders can coordinate the complex interagency, intergovernmental and intersectoral teams that fighting these monster fires now requires. These changes have also shifted the Forest Service’s budget. In 1995, fighting wildfires accounted for 18 percent of its spending. In 2015, that has grown to more than half the budget, and the agency now forecasts that firefighting will take 67 percent of its funds by 2025. “Instead of basically maintaining and restoring and making our forest more resilient,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who supervises the Forest Service, told NBC News, the agency became “one large fire department.” Some analysts even suggest -- tongue only partly in cheek -- that the U.S. Forest Service should be renamed the U.S. Fire Service.

As the drought in the West has worsened over the years, so too have fire seasons. Americans have grown used to watching dramatic footage of giant planes dropping water on raging, out-of-control fires, and they see those tankers as a sign of government action. Local residents increasingly expect a response that is federal and instant.

Nowhere was this more the case than during the 2011 Texas wildfires, which burned more than 3 million acres and devastated Bastrop County, near Austin. Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, who represents the area, hammered the U.S. Forest Service for failing to pre-position a giant DC-10 aerial tanker that the state could use whenever a wildfire should happen to erupt. When the Bastrop fire started, the Forest Service’s contractor fleet was busy in California, fighting an outbreak of wildfires there. The Forest Service shifted a DC-10 to Texas, but residents were infuriated as the plane sat idle for two days on a runway while Bastrop burned.

Why was the plane idle? The DC-10’s crew had to adhere to mandatory rest requirements. Furthermore, ground crews had to build a facility to supply flame retardant for the plane. But all that missed a larger issue, according to Tom Harbour, the Forest Service’s director of fire and aviation. At an oversight hearing that McCaul held in Austin after the disaster, Harbour pointed out that the Forest Service was only responsible for fighting the fires on its lands, which accounted for just 0.1 percent of all the land involved in the 2011 Texas fires. The agency had deployed its teams to help on nonfederal lands “because our friends in the Texas Forest Service asked us to help.” And they needed that help because Gov. Rick Perry had cut funding for the state’s own forest service.

But truthfully, the feds would have been in Texas no matter what. After all, firefighting has become an interagency, intergovernmental affair -- that’s why David Ruhl was 1,300 miles from home fighting fires.

And there’s no doubt these interagency partnerships have vastly improved firefighting, but they have also blurred responsibilities, raised expectations for the federal government’s help and shifted local costs to the federal budget, even when the problems are caused by nature and the prime responsibility for attacking them rests in state and local hands. The strategy that so greatly improved the management of fires has, paradoxically, deeply confused who’s really responsible for dealing with and paying for a huge problem that is only growing.