Burning Through Money

A Summary on Timothy Ingalsbee’s “Getting Burned: A Taxpayer’s Guide to Wildfire Suppression Costs”

This paper addresses the everyday taxpayer, who inadvertently promotes these year-after-year terrible and expensive fire seasons by dutifully paying taxes. I’m further referring to the tenacious, positive-feedback loop our society has propagated since the total suppression of fires became common policy almost a century ago.“Getting Burned: A Taxpayer’s Guide to Wildfire Suppression Costs” is an article that does a fantastic job at explaining this paradox, uncovering the multi-faceted factors that have led us to continue this absurd routine of overpriced reactive response. 

One of these factors is that over 44 million homes are located in fire-vulnerable areas (Ingalsbee, 2010). These wildland urban interfaces are expanding rapidly as private development is “subsidized” by the lack of accountability taken by private investors (Ingalsbee, 2010). Instead, the brunt of this accountability is dumped onto the federal government, who foots the bill for the vast majority of annual fire suppression costs (Ingalsbee, 2010). By paying this majority, private development is essentially encouraged under the impression that the government will pay for the full suppression of any fires that jeopardize properties. Yet where does the government get the funds to pay for all of this? From us, the taxpayers. 

Ingalsbee (2010) identifies an “open checkbook” attitude towards fire suppression that promotes reactivity rather than proactivity. This is why we are all too comfortable with throwing money (OUR money!) at fires instead of relying on proactive and cost-effective measures. The fire suppression that we pay for is done in a way that maximizes costs, such as frivolously using aircraft in a political “show of arms”, employing the help of profit-hungry privatized fire fighting companies, or by fighting fires that have very little priority or associated risk. 

Ingalsbee (2010) expresses that we can tremendously cut costs if we reform the way we deal with fire. Everyone – homeowners, recreationalists, environmentalists, etc. – needs to acknowledge and take active responsibility for wildfire suppression costs by allocating more  money and time on proactive tactics while turning our wallets away from suppression spending. This includes FireWising our homes, or simply not building houses further into fire-vulnerable ecosystems. We must oppose policies that increase fire suppression budgets and instead put our support behind proper land management and suppression tactics that use money wisely. While Igalsbee (2010) says perpetual, landscape-level thinning treatments are non-economical, we can still use these treatments, paired with low-expense prescribed burning, to form defensible spaces around our communities at dimensions that are manageable and cost-effective in the long-run. With these measures, we can hopefully stop burning away our money – literally. 

Cited Sources:

Ingalsbee, T. 2010. Getting Burned: A Taxpayer’s Guide To Wildfire Suppression Costs. Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology. Assessed April 10, 2020.

Week One Post

Fire Management: 1920 vs. 2020 – Greeley vs. The Contemporary

In 1920, U.S. Forest Service Chief William B. Greeley – a veteran firefighter of the 1910 Big Burn – had a stubborn view on the role of wildfire in forest ecology. Greeley was avid on the total suppression of all wildfires on federal lands, and advocated for a policy that spared no expense in manpower and funding to ensure that fires never grew to the size they did at the beginning of the century. Under his command, and with Congress and the social majority backing his play, Chief Greeley continued a then 20-year tradition of throwing all they (the Forest Service) had at preventing and stifling wildfires.

In his eyes, the agency’s valiant efforts were a large success – one of the greatest in U.S. History. Yet, they still weren’t good enough, due to one specific factor (among many others). Chief Greeley identified a threat to his efforts: the practitioners of the so-called “Paiute Forestry”. These “forest burners” were a group composed of agriculturalists, prospectors, settlers, and even big Southern railroads who used small, prescribed fires to clear the lands of fuels.

Greeley would have none of it. The idea of intentionally putting fire on the ground was more than absurd to him, and directly contradicted the mission of the Forest Service during that period. Greeley claimed that it was cost-ineffective compared to fire suppression, killed valuable young and mature merchantable trees, and posed immense threat to becoming blow-up conflagrations (very large uncontrollable fires). To him, light-burning was an abominable practice that should solely be replaced by intense fire suppression.

Yet, who can blame the man? As alluded to above, Greeley was a boots-on-the-ground firefighter who luckily lived through the 1910 Big Burn. He saw devastation, death, and destruction first hand. With the loss of many of his crew mates and friends, Greeley lost his tolerance and respect for fire. To him, the best and most logical course of action was to prevent something like that from ever occurring again. And so, he managed his agency accordingly.

One hundred years later, here we are, and oh how much we have learned! Today, we see a wildland urban interface that is much larger than it was back in 1920, so fire suppression is still a method that the U.S. Forest Service grants the majority of it’s annual funding to. Yet, now the Forest Service, along with many other land agencies, see fire as a process that should be re-introduced to landscapes for the sake of forest health and, counterintuitively, for the prevention of large, catastrophic wildfires. This “Paiute Forestry”, as Greeley would snidely dub it, is ironically the way today’s forestry is somewhat persisting. More and more, we are seeing the enthusiastic use of prescribed fire as a natural tool to manage forested ecosystems. People are now taking Smokey Bear’s message with a grain of salt, seeing past the total suppression propaganda and understanding that not all fires are bad.

We credit the initial transition to this clearer way of thinking to other federal agencies, who, during the 1920’s, learned early that fire was good. These agencies, including the National Parks Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs, continued to burn and educate those who could be pulled-out from under the bias of the U.S. Forest Service. The individuals who worked to paint wildfire in a different light helped pave the way to where we’re at today, and while our social-fire infrastructure still has a lot of change to undergo, the field of forestry is taking a step in the right direction.

Cited Source:

Greeley, W. B. (2000). “Paiute forestry” or the fallacy of light burning. Fire Management Today, 60(4), 21. Retrieved from