Fire Borrowing

Issues with Forest Service fire budgeting finally addressed

I chose the GAO article called Wildfire Suppression. As we have covered thus far in the course, the Forest Service began to change its policy of fire suppression in the 60’s and 70’s, in favor of more natural fire regimes. Despite this paradigm shift, the backlash from the fire suppression policy still haunts us every summer as wildfires burn large and hot, fueled by decades of accumulated debris and densely packed young trees. Experience that simply not putting out fires is a risky business. Instead, it is better to treat the stands with more carefully controlled methods, like prescribed burning and mechanical fuel reduction. Fire is a dangerous adversary and it is much better fought on one’s own terms. 

Even though prevention tactics have been ramped up since the 70’s, the number of acres in need of treatment is so vast that the Forest Service is still far behind. Thus, fires have continued to grow larger, and these fires are increasingly expensive. To pay for the cost of fighting the fires the Forest Service had a dedicated trust fund which covered costs until 1999. In that year they had to borrow from other programs to cover the suppression costs, and this was repeated for the next four years. From 1999 to 2003 the agency borrowed a total of $2.7 billion from other programs, most of which were part of wilderness management. 80% of these costs were originally refunded to the agency, though that number has dropped to 75% recently. Additionally, the refunds were given a year or more later, meaning the original project from which the money was borrowed was often gone. 

Measures were taken to preemptively fund the costs, however the models on which these reslied have been less than stellar. The article makes the case that these models need to be improved to be effective. This would allow the agency to put intended funding toward fuel treatments, while still having enough for suppression. The issues raised in the report, written in 2004, have been addressed since it was written. 

For the first time in 9 years the Forest Service ended fire season without borrowing in 2019. This is due to a new fund set up which provides instant federal funding, eliminating the borrowing issue (Broussard). This has been a long time coming, and will hopefully mean more fuel treatments in the future.

Broussard, Kailey. “Money to Burn: Forest Service Wildfire Fund Ends Its Year in the Black.” Cronkite News – Arizona PBS, 31 Dec. 2019,


U.S. Fire Policy

Changing with science, but unchanged in sentiment

While suppression has been US fire policy for over a century, mounting research reveals that many ecosystems rely on periodic fire in order to survive. Recent events suggest that removing fire from these ecosystems may lead to even worse fires later down the road, a reality underscored by billions of dollars in damage and scores of lives lost. As a result, modern fire policies are moving toward bringing fire back to the landscape in order to restore forest health.

Since 1935, wildland fire policy in the US has called for all fires to be suppressed by 10 am if possible. This is actually a very effective suppression policy, though we have learned it is only possible for so long. This policy was enacted by William Greeley, who became the chief of the Forest Service in 1933. Born 1879, just 8 years after the most devastating fire in American history, Greeley and his contemporaries grew up in a time of horrific wildfires on a scale never before seen in America. In 1871 the Peshtigo fire in Wisconsin claimed 2,500 lives and kicked off an era of catastrophic wildfires that lasted nearly five decades, culminating in 1918 with the Cloquet Fire, which killed 450 people (PBS).

Many of the early policy makers for agencies like the Forest Service were involved in these fires as young men, and this shaped their later decisions. Indeed, even today most of us likely thought of wildfires as natural disasters until we learned otherwise. On its surface, fire seems blatantly bad for a forest, and viewing a recently burned forest only reinforces this feeling. Actual fire research by the forest service did not begin until the 1920’s, and so there was very little science to contradict one’s natural sentiment (Smith). With that in mind, it is easy to understand why early foresters formulated the policies that they did. 

There were some advocates of prescribed burning at this time. Unfortunately, proponents of so-called “Piute Forestry” lacked research to back their claims just as much as their counterparts. While there were local and agency exceptions to the suppression policy, those at the top believed fire to be a threat to the forests (Smith). Greeley stated in 1920 that prescribed burning was akin to tuberculosis for forests (Greeley), and Aldo Leopold echoed this by saying such a practice would turn the forests to seas of brush (Leopold). In these articles both men emphasized that their top priority was protecting the forests, and this is what they based their decisions on. 

While we now know early forest policies were not good for the forests, historical context makes the reasoning behind them apparent. When looking back at early foresters we should be careful of presentism, and not demonize them for making decisions based on what they know. Foresters in 1920 had much the same goals as today, and they did their best with what they had at the time.

Greeley, William B. “Piute Forestry, or the Fallacy of Light Burning.” The Timberman, vol. 21, 1920, pp. 38–39.

Leopold, Aldo. “Piute Forestry” vs. Forest Fire Prevention.” Southwestern Magazine, vol. 2, 1920, pp. 12–13.

PBS. “America’s Most Devastating Wildfires.” American Experience, 19 Mar. 2017,

Smith, Diane M. Sustainability and Wildland Fire: The Origins of Forest Service Wildland Fire Research. US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Forest Health Protection, 2017.