Disaster Unpreparedness: Wildfire Tragedy Sheds Light on Dangerous Budget Gaps
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.
The National Wildfire Suppression Association, which represents firefighters working on contract, contends that such private services offer “a great value to the taxpayer,” emphasizing that they “are paid only for their actual time on the lines”--a sentiment echoed over the years by pro-market political players linked to the burgeoning private firefighting sector that have pushed the use of contractors in fire-suppression.
But those who see a critical government role in wildfire control warn that fiscal “efficiencies” often come at the expense of public and environmental safety. Advocates say that disinvestment from wildfire defenses reveals that policymakers are ceding the responsibility to protect the commons to profit-minded corporations. Critics see outsourcing firefighting as part of a spiral of privatization that drives public services into the hands of profit-minded businesses. Failure to address climate change and failure to invest in long-range wildfire protection both reflect a pattern of subordinating public safety investment to budget politics.
Swan does not blame private contractors for doing their job. But from the standpoint of sustaining a public service infrastructure, he says, “When you contract out anything that deals with public safety and public service, that's a bad move. Allowing the privates [to take on] the ability to protect public lands—to me it's offensive, that this government cannot protect its own lands.”
Hotshots like the publicly funded Prescott crew are an invaluable resource, but their labor loses value when their abilities are sabotaged by funding shortfalls.
Tom O’Connor, executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety & Health, says that the government can truly honor firefighters through systemic thinking, not accolades. "There's a tendency to sort of romanticize the macho culture of the firefighters and to think, 'Well, hey, there's a tough guy, they can do anything,' ” he says, “but not to think, they're workers like anybody else. And what is it, systemically, that needs to be done, to ensure their safety?"
Yarnell Hill's flames have died down for now, but left behind is the kindling of the next disaster. As lawmakers trade tomorrow’s environment for today’s “efficiency,” wildfires will keep returning with a vengeance, and next time there may be even less standing between us and nature’s fury.
As the media trains its attention on the Arizona wildfire, it remains to be seen whether policymakers go beyond a public appreciation of the hotshots’ sacrifice to a serious effort to deal with the systemic institutional failures that endanger not just emergency fire responders but countless communities and habitats.
© 2013 In These Times