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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

SoCal Fires: Product of Federal Neglect?

I'd been wandering the blogosphere and just commented on Naomi Klein's "Outsourcing Government" on Alternet (I am "PeaceWarrior" there) when I discovered a perfect example of Klein's hollowing out of government services in the recent Southern California fires.

Klein's article, published in the Los Angeles Times, echoes arguments made in her new book, Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

Klein's argument is persuasive. Like predators, private corporations seize on the opportunity presented by a disaster, natural or man-made. Functions formally assigned to the federal government are privatized, or have been abdicated to the point the federal response is anemic and uncoordinated.

In the disaster's aftermath, contractors are enriched at the public expense. The beneficiaries of federal spending are not the victims of the disaster but cronies of the administration who receive massive no-bid contracts supposedly supplanting the responsibilities of the federal government. Victims are then hopelessly left to depend on State and local governments or mega-charities for what the Feds--through their corporate proxies--are unwilling or unable to provide.

While not the best case of disaster capitalism, the fires in California, it appears, have been made worse by the inadequate funding of fire prevention efforts. Funding cuts to key federal agencies appear to have worsened the situation. And the aftermath of the fires might bring increased privatization of functions previously performed by government.

Commentary by Michael Rivero at whatreallyhappened.com (10/23/07 8:53 PST) brought to my attention this article from the San Diego Union-Tribune by Mike Lee (the link was down and technically challenged earlier this afternoon) with the subtitle "Proposal to reduce funding alarms backcounty residents." The article explains:

"Across San Diego County's fire country, an alliance of agencies has spent about $50 million to clear dead trees and overgrown brush after blazes charred much of the region in 2003.

But now, the federal fire-prevention money for their work is drying up. Priorities in Washington, D.C., have shifted to paying for national defense, cleanups after Hurricane Katrina and other needs, forestry experts say."

Bush apparently supported a 14% cut, according to the article. Lee quotes local leaders in San Diego County as saying "without enough fire-prevention money...it is only a matter of time before the county faces another massive wildfire."

The article says that US Forest Service funds fire prevention in the San Diego area along with other sources. The Forest Service operates within the Department of Agriculture.

The article highlights the $10 million in grants offered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service to San Diego area landowners for removing dead and dying trees and vegetation in the year 2004. Riverside County received $20 million, San Bernardino $70 million and San Diego County $30m, according to a NRCS release from May, 2004. Dead and dying trees are a major source of fuel for wildfires, and contribute to their intensity alonside other factors like humidity, wind speed, and wind direction.

In 2004, the NRCS--a Department of Agriculture entity--declared a emergency situation in Southern California and paid 100% of the costs for the what was then called the Tree Mortality program, foregoing the 25% cost-share match usually required from a local government sponsor. The payout showed the scale of the problem recognized by local fire officials and the federal government at the time. In October 2004 the project was renamed the Watershed Recovery Project.

Yet according to the NRCS release all funds were expected to be spent over the next two or three years. If the projection were accurate, it would appear that the funding dried up within the last year or so.

One year of delinquent funding might not sound like much. Yet there appeared to be an exceptionally large amount of diseased and dying trees in 2004. To assume the problem had been resolved since then underestimates the dire state of peril which existed in 2004, and denies the very obvious reality of an overabundance of natural fuels for the fires that are raging now in the region.

Like the levees of Lousiana prior to Katrina, fire prevention suffered a calamitous drop in funding. The Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for maintaining the system of canals and levees around New Orleans, saw their funding drop as the result of budget priorities in Iraq. While reduced funding for the levees might not sound like too big a deal, actually the levees are constantly sinking, which meant that ongoing levee construction is required to keep the levees at their previous heights (or more accurately, their depth.)

Constantly sinking, levees need funds for constant building and strengthening at their base. With the Army Corps of Engineers budget depleted by its responsibilities in Iraq, the levees in New Orleans saw less federal funding and maintenance. The consequence was massive flooding and a disaster-struck city which has yet to recover.

FAST: Partnership worked to minimize fire danger

In his article, Mike Lee describes a Forest Area Safety Taskforce that wons awards for coordinating the removal of naturally abundant fuel for wildfires. The group coordinated removal efforts of dead and dying trees and vegetation within San Diego County for a number of local entities alongside county, state, and federal agencies.

The FAST's fact sheet states that the object of a US Forest Service grant is "to remove dead, dying and diseased trees located within 200 feet of an evacuation corridor." The purpose of the NRCS's grant is "to remove dead dying and diseased trees located within 200 feet of a structure or a roadway."

The fire situation confronting Southern California came with ample warning. California's trees have been dying in huge numbers, with up to 70% of all trees in some areas already dead, which means the fires were widely anticipated. FAST offers an excellent white paper on the scope of the threat here (.pdf).

According to FAST's newsletter (.pdf), the USFS and NRCS combined to remove some 34,000 trees as of April, 2007 (starting date uncertain). The County of San Diego did the large majority of brush removal in the county.

The San Diego Union-Tribune article from April '07 by Lee announced that "task force officials have trimmed their meeting schedule to once every other month because they are essentially out of funds." This would indicate funding had been drying up.

FAST's last newsletter is dated April, 2007. Not knowing the group's operating budget or resources, I can't deduce whether wide staggering of FAST's newsletter is evidence of a funding decrease.

There's no denying the progress made by FAST. Federal funding undoubtedly played a huge part. With more federal funding, much of the fire's spread may have been better contained.

Funds decrease (or not?)

Diving into the federal budget numbers, so far I've been unable to ascertain the amounts spent on fire prevention. Funds devoted to fire prevention are hard to distinguish from those spent to fight fires, and a patchwork of grants makes the researching the source of funding a challenge.

FAST is dependent on federal funding. The Forest Area Safety Taskforce's websitelists both the County of San Diego and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as "Interested Stakeholders" alongside the Bureau of Land Management and the National Resources Conservation Service. Grants from those two federal agencies, alongside the Forest Service, support FAST and the efforts of groups like it nationwide.

The success of fire prevention efforts depends on federal benefactors so it follows that those federal agencies are stressed for funding, the fire prevention effort will suffer.

Much of the fire prevention effort is paid through grants, which are a notoriously unpredictable source of funding, especially for something as critical as fire prevention. One report from the Democratic Policy Committee in the Senate explains that an increase in the budget for the Bureau of Land Management's wildland fire management is forthcoming, but adds a caveat:

"The Bush budget eliminates funding for the rural fire assistance program in the Department of the Interior, which helps reduce the risk of damage resulting from catastrophic wildfires and supports rural fire departments. President Bush would also eliminate the state and local fire assistance program, which supports cost-shared grants to local and rural fire protection districts that protect small communities."

I'm still researching the role that Bureau of Land Management plays in preventative efforts; suffice to say they are an official partner in FAST. Another Federal Agency plays a direct role in supervising the large federal forests in Southern California. Cuts for the Forest Service are on the way for fiscal year 2008, which we are now in. According to the Democratic Policy Committee report, "within the Forest Service budget, the fire management program would decrease by $155 million, from $1.715 billion to $1.56 billion; state and private forestry programs would be cut by $89 million..."

In Washington, and on matter of budget, perspective is a matter of politics. Commentary on the Department of Agriculture budget for 2007 by the White House explains that the President's Budget..."continues Forest Service reforms that will result in a savings of more than $115 million over three years."

White House budget estimates for 2006 and 2007 do in fact show higher federal spending for the National Forest Service and the NRCS, both key sources of funding for fire prevention. Forest service spending was estimated to be $868 million in 2006 and $806 million in 2007, up from actual spending of $689m in 2005.

An estimate for National Resources Conservation Service spending was 1.6 billion in 2006 and 1.78 billion in 2007, both up from 2005 actual spending of 1.2 billion. The NRCS is a partner in the FAST program, so funding restraints might make a direct impact on fire prevention efforts.

Fires are getting more expensive to fight and this reflects the rising costs of fire fighting associated with bigger fires and drier conditions (alongside more rural housing to protect). Democrats in the Senate would accuse the White House of insufficiently funding fire prevention efforts, and blame Bush, although it remains unclear how much of the funding is devoted to fire fighting versus how much is spent to prevent fires.

Whatever the year-to-year budget outlays, fire fighting is consuming a rapidly growing portion of the NFS budget. A 2007 article by Perry Backus of the Missoulian (Montana) explains:

"In 1991, the Forest Service spent 13 percent of its total budget on wildland fire management. Last year, 45 percent of the agency's budget went to fighting fire."

The article spotlights the increased expense of fighting fires for a variety of reasons, including the spread of "homes being built in the wildland-urban interface" and longer and stronger fires.

It's now more than possible that even modest increases in budgets for the fire prevention programs led by the Forest Service and National Resources Conservation Services would be insufficient. The rise in firefighting costs is dramatic:

"The 10-year average firefighting cost for fiscal year 2008 was $911 million - a 23 percent increase from just last year. The Forest Service projects the costs could exceed $1 billion by 2009."

Higher costs to fight fires mean less money may be available for fire mitigation and prevention. Over the years, inadequate funds for protecting places like San Diego County from wildfires meant that the fires were that more destructive when they came. Being more destructive, fires cost more to fight and--in a worsening spiral--drain funds available for prevention.

Like treating drug addicts, it may be that fighting the source of problems--in San Diego's case, the dead and dying trees and vegetation--preventively will reduce the costs of firefighting.

The underfunding of groups like FAST signifies neglect of our nation's public lands, or at least the unwillingness or inability of Washington to make money available. Like the treatment of drug addicts, which might save $10 in costs to society for every rehab dollar spent, removing undergrowth and dead trees might drastically reduce the economic costs of fires by reducing their intensity, through reducing the amount of dead and dry plant matter that is available to fuel wildfires. Other tactics like the building of fire retention lines ("fuel breaks") produce benefits that may greatly exceed their cost over the longer term.

Looking at the astronomical economic costs of the fires raging now, surely funds spent on preventative efforts look wiser in hindsight. Perhaps damage reports will show the effectiveness of dead and dying brush/tree removal in places where those fire prevention efforts were made. Once the costs to Southern California's economy are totaled, the money spent on mitigating the intensity of future fires will be seen as a prudent investment. Administration of fire prevention programs should be seen as a vital responsibility of government at all levels.

Prophetic words

Surely the mammoth fires that raged in Southern California in October 2003 raised the awareness of the relationship between fire mitigation and impact. The fires then were the worst in California history according to San Diego County supervisor Dianne Jacob.

In a 2004 Address, Jacob explains the predicament as she sees it:

"We need to view fire as a natural force of nature. It gets rid of old growth and replenishes nutrients so that land can renew itself. State and Federal environmental rules ignore this lifecycle. Over-zealous regulations have cultivated a Back Country full of overgrown brush. Getting rid of this dangerous kindling takes years of bureaucratic paperwork... just to get started. The result is the kind of unmanaged tinderbox that exploded during the October Fires." [link]

Jacob blames the Feds for overprotective constraints on brush and dead tree removal, results of "onerous regulations" like the California Environmental Quality Act and the Federal Endangered Species Act which she says "are not up to date with the science of forestry." [link]

One issue Jacob doesn't seem to address is the sprawling growth of San Diego and the residential charge into previously undeveloped regions, where fire is both natural and regenerative by her admission. The proximity of rural houses to heavily forested areas clearly magnifies the dangers of fire and ultimately justifies paying for fire prevention efforts at the local level. From a social justice perspective, those choosing to live in these areas should perhaps bear the costs of firefighting and prevention.

Surely funding for FAST would have happened if Jacob had done a better job of selling her position on fire prevention to her fellow supervisors; she'd been undeniably right in her commitment to clear brush and trees and even predicted the next one should nothing be done.

The failure to fund FAST out of County coffers suggests that the County of San Diego relied on the federal government grants from the Forest Service and NRCS for at least a portion of the fire prevention costs.

Unlike budgets at the state or Federal level, the San Diego County budget--over which I presume Jacob and her fellow Supervisors had influence--was in good condition. Jacob indicates in her State of the County address in 2004 that "San Diego County's budget looks nothing like the State's. We are as solid as they are weak. Where they are flat broke, we are financially sound."

By this admission we know that from a funding perspective San Diego County could have spent more to prevent fires, and not be dependent on federal funds. Also, unfortunately for Jacob's noble cause, the shortage of money in Sacramento meant that less was available for fire prevention and that the state's financial responsibilities in preventing fires would go underfunded. This should have made the need to fund firefighting through local channels more apparent, and excuse state and federal financial indiscretions as a source of blame being that more financial resources could have been committed by the County.

Jacob might argue that failure of the state and federal agencies to clear brush and dead trees worsened the situation. This accusation might lay some of the blame for the fires with the state or Feds. If that's the case, then federal funding is insufficient, which would be a failure of those in control of the federal budget. At this point we can't ascertain where the fires began or how the fires spread, so we can't blame the Federal or State governments, even if they do own a large chunk of the lands there.

The warning cry she let loose in 2004 apparently could not carry to Washington, DC., where fellow Republicans--then in control--could have done more to fund the Forestry Service and other federal bodies responsible for fire prevention on federal lands, or expedite the grant-process in order to benefit groups like FAST.

The problem may lie not so much in the size of funding but how efficiently funds are allocated. Apparently, fire management budgets have been pressured for years. Backus' article in the Missoulian repeats a statement made by five former Forest Service chiefs:

“As Chiefs of the U.S. Forest Service from 1979 to 2007, we wish to express in the strongest way that the Forest Service has been put into an untenable financial situation due to the way fire suppression funding is being handled in the federal budget.”

The willingness of the federal government to underfund vital elements of disaster prevention is a very visible soft spot in the safety and security blanket we Americans typically ascribe to our government. If there's a threat, especially one of this magnitude, surely our government would know about it. Surely something would be done to protect us, right?

Look no farther than the under-funding of levee maintenance pre-Katrina to see how the dangers of depending on continued federal funding in disaster prevention or mitigation. In California, politicians at the county level could blame Washington for failing to fund. But the failure to take adequate efforts to prevent fire damage can't belong to the federal or state governments alone.

In the aftermath of a disaster, particularly a natural one, blame can always be easily cast. Yet the costs and damage of the fires almost certainly would have been reduced by fully funding FAST and other groups trying to prevent fires or reduce the size of the fuel base.

Whatever political games are being played, funding directed towards fire prevention has been constricted by the intensity of fires, which is a function of how much dead and dry vegetation is available, alongside the strength of seasonal winds, intensity of drought, and other aggravating circumstances. Judging by the magnitude of the fires now raging, the consequences of inadequate fire prevention are obvious to see. The fires were sure to occur, and their spread and intensity remained the only possible "control factors" in the overall equation. As Southern Californians wander among the smoldering embers of their former homes, what remains unclear is whether enough was being done, and spent, on prevention.



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