Every year, enormous fires burn in the West, and every year, the U.S. Forest Service, along with state agencies like Cal Fire, mount huge military-style operations to fight them, complete with defensible lines, air assaults, heroic fighters on the ground, and blank check budgets. State and federal fire suppression costs in 2021 were $4.4 billion as of November, according to the Northern Rockies Coordination Center. Media tend to cover these battles against wildfire in the same breathless way they would a war. “Firefighters Hold Caldor, Dixie Fires in Check; Newly Arrived Hot Shot Teams Bolster Fire Lines,” reads a CBS headline from August.
More than 6.5 million acres in the U.S. have been affected by fire so far this year. The Dixie Fire, at nearly 1 million acres burned, was the second-largest fire in California’s history. Faced with such catastrophic wildfires, it seems only natural for fire services to respond with every resource available. But according to many of the country’s most respected fire experts, there is little evidence that most of these fire suppression campaigns are effective. These critics say that the current practice of trying to suppress every big wildfire is foolhardy, especially given the huge, climate-driven fires more and more common in the West. Some blame this policy on what they call the fire-industrial complex: a collection of the major governmental fire agencies and hundreds of private contractors, who are motivated by a mixture of institutional inertia, profiteering, and desperation.
“There’s this war metaphor in fire,” says Stephen J. Pyne, former MacArthur fellow and author of more than 30 books on fire (as well as several pieces for Slate on fire policy). According to Pyne, the metaphor is tragically apt. “If this is a war, we’re gonna spend a lot of money, we’re gonna take a lot of casualties, and we’re gonna lose.”
Few fire experts dispute that the advanced technology of modern firefighting is effective when it can be concentrated in a small area. Repeated drops of water or fire retardant at the perimeter of a community can saturate the ground, put out the fire or prevent it from advancing, and save a town. And what ecologists call the “wildland-urban interface”—the transition zone between wilderness and human development—has grown at least 40 percent over the past 30 years, meaning that more people than ever live in communities that could be threatened by fire. But many wildland firefighting resources don’t go to saving people or buildings in imminent danger, but to putting out big fires in the backcountry. And these are nearly impossible to fight.
At the scale of blazes like this year’s Dixie Fire, “fighting a fire is almost like fighting a hurricane,” says Timothy Ingalsbee, a fire ecologist and former firefighter who now heads Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology, a nonprofit that aims to change the current model of wildfire fighting. A DC-10 can drop a payload of more than 10,000 gallons of fire retardant several times in a day. But with smoke and wind around a forest fire, Ingalsbee says, much of this liquid ends up getting dropped too high, where it gets stuck in tree canopies or diffuses into mist, having little effect on fire spreading on the ground. Even when it reaches its mark, retardant merely slows fire; it doesn’t put it out. Without a ground crew to dig a deep trench in front of it (known as a firebreak or fire line) to isolate the flames, the fire will eventually burn through the chemical and keep going. In the hot, dry, windy conditions that occur more and more frequently in the West, even these containment lines dug by firefighters or clear-cut by bulldozers are often no use: Embers from the fire will simply fly over the line and ignite dry fuel on the ground behind it. Furthermore, bulldozed lines, cut by blades 8 or 10 feet across and sometimes three or four blades wide, scar the landscape long after the forest has started to return.
Supporting these air and ground campaigns are enormous fire camps that can be active for months. “For some of my crew mates, fire camp was the biggest city they ever lived in,” says Ingalsbee. A camp set up to fight a major fire can serve as the base for thousands of firefighters and hundreds of bulldozers and other heavy equipment. An army of contractors supports them: caterers, laundry, sewage, fuel trailers, even trailers full of copy machines to produce the tens of thousands of pages of plans that get distributed to the crew bosses each day.
The costs of running a fire camp, however, pale in comparison to those of fire aviation. One payload of fire retardant from a DC-10 costs almost $60,000 to deliver. During a major fire, these planes can make several drops a day. The Type 1 helicopters used by Cal Fire and the Forest Service run more than $3,000 an hour. The costs are not just financial. Aviation is probably the most dangerous aspect of firefighting: Six of the 10 deaths on wildland fires in 2020 were the result of air crashes. Phos-Chek, the most commonly used type of chemical fire retardant, has been shown to be toxic to fish when dropped in streams and rivers. And despite the enormous efforts on the air and ground, most megafires barely respond to human intervention. “All the lines and all the aerial support for fire lines, during the Dixie and Caldor fires, failed to stop fire spread,” says Pyne. But when a fire is burning thousands of acres a day and choking cities with smoke, politicians feel they have little choice but to call in air support.
“The alternative, to kind of stand around and watch it go, is not very palatable,” says Jim Furnish, who served as deputy chief of the Forest Service from 1999 to 2002. “It’s not a good look for the agency. You have to at least give some impression that you’re doing everything you can. But the sad truth is that sometimes doing everything you can is having little or no effect on the outcome.”
Along with fire suppression, the U.S. Forest Service has another, preemptive approach to wildfire management that gets much less attention: forest thinning. The idea behind thinning is that selectively removing trees removes fuel for future fires, making them less severe. A USFS website titled “Thinning the Forest for the Trees” informs readers that if they see a giant crane uprooting trees in the forest, “the mechanical beast is there to do good, working to improve the forest’s health.”
But some ecologists consider thinning, as currently practiced, to be simply a euphemism for logging. “The U.S. Forest Service is in the commercial logging business,” says Chad Hanson, a forest ecologist with the John Muir Project, an environmental group in California. Indeed, the USFS receives revenue of around $150 million a year from selling trees on public lands to timber companies under its forest health and fuel reduction program, and receives more than $1 billion in funding to administer the thinning and logging programs. Thinning projects often remove mature and even old-growth trees, since big trees are more valuable than small ones. Hanson points to research indicating that forest thinned in this way actually burns faster than dense forest.
Forest thinning is the subject of fierce debate among scientists. A recent multiauthor paper argued strongly for expanding areas treated in this way. The science of forest thinning is complex, but in spite of doubts about its effectiveness, the Biden administration is committing further to it in the Build Back Better bill, which increases funding for thinning under the label of “hazardous fuel reduction.” (The U.S. Forest Service declined to comment for this story.)
If the current method of managing wildfire is wasteful and ineffective, what is a better way? Jim Furnish echoes the views of many fire experts when he says, “Investments need to be focused like a laser on the wildland-urban interface.” He means that the government needs to focus fire suppression on areas close to human habitation and letting more fires burn if they are out in the wilderness, where they may actually be doing ecological good.
This last part can be a tricky business. “There are very few places in the state of California where [a fire] is far out and will not threaten lives and property,” says Cal Fire spokesman Isaac Sanchez. This year’s Tamarack Fire, for example, started in the remote Mokelumne Wilderness in eastern California but spread rapidly after weather conditions changed, forcing several towns to evacuate.
Still, many experts believe there are better ways to protect these communities than by trying to fight hurricane-size blazes. First, while the USFS and other fire services already conduct prescribed burns, they should be doing more of them. Forests evolved with fire, and low-intensity burns set by firefighters can to some degree mimic the effects of naturally occurring fires by consuming needles, twigs, and tree limbs, the material that ignites first and spreads fire most rapidly. When wildfire reaches an area that’s been pre-burned, it may either stop or at least be prevented from reaching and igniting the tree canopies. Moreover, these kinds of fires provide ecological benefits to the forest that even well-conducted thinning does not, such as restoring nutrients to the soil.
Second, fireproofing houses and property is effective. Most houses destroyed in wildfires are not engulfed in flames; they are ignited by embers flying off an active fire front. Simple preparations, sometimes standardized under the trademark Firewise, can protect most houses from this threat. These include clearing shrubs and other burnable growth from around the house, installing nonflammable roofs, and installing fine mesh screening in roof vents and under eaves to block embers. Of course, these preparations cost money, and while there are some state and local funds to fireproof homes, homeowners are for the most part on their own when it comes to making these sometimes costly modifications to their houses. The town of Grizzly Flats, California, was largely destroyed in this year’s Caldor Fire, while the wealthier South Lake Tahoe was mostly unharmed, partly for the reason that Tahoe residents could afford to fireproof their homes.
With more public investment in these protections, says Furnish, we can have a less apocalyptic relationship with fire.
“If you could combine Firewise with wildland-urban interface investments,” he says, “that is the menu to try to manage your way through this. You’re gonna have to live with the phenomenon of a lot of fire on the landscape. But you’re gonna reduce the damage.”
It will be hard to commit to this approach unless society takes a different attitude toward fire.
“Most Americans live in urban environments where fire is not wanted and only appears as a disaster,” says Pyne. “And they project that over the countryside. But living with fire means it’s going to be there, it needs to be there.”
In the meantime, fire services will continue to throw money, equipment, and even lives into fighting unfightable blazes. One firefighter who worked at fire camps for nearly 20 years remembers the frustration.
“I’d see these signs that said ‘Thank you heroes,’ and it didn’t feel heroic to me,” he says. “People are making really desperate choices, deciding to do a firing operation or to use air tankers, and a lot of that stuff is Hail Marys because nothing’s working. There’s a huge amount of waste. We’re spending billions of dollars, and it’s too late.”
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.