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Imperium Watch: Up in Smoke

Nearly eight million acres of American wilderness went up in flames this summer?and so did some questionable political nostrums.

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Thursday, October 18, 2012

So we think we don't need government. We think its programs are a waste. We think paying taxes impoverishes us.

But we don't know how accustomed we are to calling Uncle Sam when something goes wrong.

This past summer, with its heat and drought, reminded us that we need help from the agencies that do for us what we can't do for ourselves. We do have collective problems; there are dangers that even the wealthy can't pay to duck.

In Massachusetts, the Department of Public Health warned residents about disease vectors: ticks carrying Lyme disease. Mosquitoes spreading West Nile virus and Eastern equine encephalitis. But an even more spectacular example of the protection our taxes pay for resulted from the dramatic burning of Western forests during the warm months, when a total of 7.72 million acres of wild land, the largest number on record for one season, went up in flames.

At the end of August—the month in which 3.64 million acres, or nearly half the total area burned this summer, were incinerated—the Forest Service ran out of money to fight the fires. Controlling the blazes took manpower, trucks, planes and flame retardant, a billion dollars' worth in this record-setting year. The appropriation for fighting forest fires had only been half that much. The Forest Service had to borrow internally, which meant taking fire prevention funds, which meant that less work could be done to prevent next year's fires.

Lingering images of government incompetence following Hurricane Katrina notwithstanding, most Americans are unaccustomed to seeing the government run out of resources in the face of something as concrete and deadly as enormous, raging fires. In this case, Congress did find more money—from the Continuing Resolution of 2013—so the prevention fund was reimbursed. But the outlook is for more forest fires as the climate continues to warm.

What would happen if the government programs we depend on were downscaled so as to be unrecognizable, or eliminated? The next time you hear that government needs to be shrunk until you could drown it in the bathtub, or that "government is the problem," think: do you really want government to be cut until more of California and Colorado are burning and there is no Forest Service to put out the fires?

And don't believe all you hear about how private companies can do everything better and more cheaply than the government. Take this matter of forest fires. In 2010, Timothy Ingalsbee, a former Forest Service wildland firefighter and a widely recognized expert on firefighting and its costs, put out a report entitled "Getting Burned: A Taxpayer's Guide to Wildfire Suppression Costs." One of the factors responsible for the high price of fighting forest fires, Ingalsbee found, was "the growing use of private contractors to provide firefighting crews, aircraft, vehicles, supplies and services."

"The privatization of firefighting," Ingalsbee notes, "has been driven largely by political and ideological interests seeking to shrink the size of the federal workforce, and has been sustained by the promise that private businesses would provide cheaper, better, more efficient service. However, private contractors not only cost more than public agency crews, but there have been concerns about the inferior work performance of some contractors whose lack of productivity (e.g. fireline construction) also raises [fire] suppression costs."

Wildland wildfires, Ingalsbee explains, are expensive to fight, and become more so as fighting them becomes less a public service and more a for-profit enterprise. Aircraft, usually provided by private companies, can cost from $4,000 to $6,000 per hour of flying time. Government agency crews cost $5,539 per day on average, he found, while private crews cost $7,791 per day.

"A qualitative study ["External Human Factors... and Their Effect on Large Fire Suppression Expenditure," Journal of Forestry, December, 2008] interviewing IMTs [Incident Management Teams] revealed that, in the perspective of federal fire managers, many private firefighting contractors are poorly trained, unqualified, and unmotivated," Ingalsbee wrote, "and thus their work is generally substandard or inferior compared to public agency crews."

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