Fighting wildfires in a cash-strapped state

Today’s topic: Experts forecast that climate change will increase the frequency of deadly wildfires. Do state and local governments have enough resources to prevent and fight fires (in other words, will taxes have to be raised to pay for more services), or should the private sector play a bigger role in disaster response?

Tap private-sector resources to improve fire protection
Point: Adam B. Summers

The sad fact is that wildfires are a part of life in California, and policymakers must plan accordingly. This is certainly not to say that nothing can be done about fires or that state and local governments should just throw up their hands and shrug. On the contrary, we should always be looking for ways to improve responses to wildfires and other natural disasters and to minimize damage to people and property. The best solution is not necessarily to look to the government for answers, however.

While we all could probably think of numerous creative and not-so-creative ways to spend more of other people’s money, the problem is not a dearth of funding for fighting wildfires. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire), for example, has seen continued budget increases despite the economic downturn. During fiscal year 2007-08, the department’s budget was more than $1.3 billion. That grew to more than $1.6 billion in 2008-09, and to more than $1.8 billion this year.

Even if you argue that we should provide more funding for firefighting services, the answer is not more taxes but rather a reshuffling of priorities to direct more funds from lower priority or poorly performing programs. You can’t seriously argue that there aren’t lower priority programs or waste to be rooted out to make up any difference.

California has suffered from a spending addiction for decades. I noted in a policy brief earlier this year that had California just held spending growth to the rate of the increase in population plus the cost of living from 1990 to 2008, the state would have been sitting on a $15-billion surplus instead of the $42-billion deficit it faced at the time -- and we wouldn’t have had to impose an additional $12 billion in tax increases in February.

California is already one of the highest-taxed states in the nation. Its high-tax, high-regulation environment has been driving people and jobs from the state for years. Increasing taxes would only exacerbate this problem.

State and local governments can better provide fire protection services by tapping military resources (which were severely underutilized during the 2006 wildfires in the San Diego area, for example) and private-sector resources. The private sector has a long and distinguished history of providing high-quality services for such things as paramedic services, security services and, yes, even firefighting services at lower costs. The private firefighting industry is growing quickly and is now estimated to be worth billions of dollars.

The National Wildfire Suppression Assn. (NWSA), for example, is a trade group founded in 2000 that now represents more than 150 private companies and 12,000 private wild land firefighters. NWSA reports that about 40% of the resources devoted to fighting wild land fires across the United States are provided by private fire services.

Companies such as Firebreak Spray Systems Co. and insurance company AIG saved homes during the 2007 California wildfires. Private firefighting contractor Rural/Metro provides fire protection services to more than 25 communities, and responds to more than 60,000 calls annually, according to the company’s website. The rapid growth of this industry is evidence that, despite the substantial public resources devoted to fire protection, the government is not adequately doing its job and a need remains unfulfilled.

Governments -- including the federal government -- are increasingly contracting out firefighting services, sometimes replacing public fire departments entirely. As is the case in numerous other outsourced services, private fire protection contractors oftentimes provide equal or better services at significantly lower costs. Given the condition of state and local government budgets, this should offer an even greater incentive to utilize private-sector resources to provide fire protection services.

Adam Summers is a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation.

Stress the responsibility of property owners
Counterpoint: William Stewart

I agree with your point, Adam, that the state should reshuffle “priorities to direct more funds from lower priority or poorly performing programs.” However, I do not think your example of state and local fire agencies passing up on using military resources to fight the recent blazes near San Diego is a strong one. Let me explain.

Neighboring U.S. states and other countries with Mediterranean climates, such as Australia and Spain, often take very different approaches to fire prevention and suppression than we do. They use more private-sector firms that deliver complete services rather than just a single contracted-out component. One of the largest differences between us and them is their much greater focus on investments in prevention and preparation and a smaller focus on aerial resources. In Oregon, local fire districts are fully responsible for protecting houses from fires, but they can call in the same high-performance state firefighting resources that we have here.

But in Oregon, the local districts have to repay a portion of the costs provided by outside agencies. Financial liability can be a strict taskmaster.

Oregon also puts much greater legal responsibility on landowners for clearing hazardous fuels on their property to acceptable standards. People can hire local contractors to do the work or they can do it themselves, but the point is that Oregon stresses private financial responsibility when it comes to preventing and fighting fires. Such a strategy reduces the cost of firefighting around houses when the smoke is swirling and firefighters from outside agencies need to be called in.

Los Angeles County probably has the most effective program in California in terms of annual fire safety inspections and requiring property owner compliance. If other counties had similarly effective programs, California would probably lose fewer homes to fires and spend millions less on last-ditch aerial defenses.

Many private fire companies have taken a long, hard look at how to win contracts by providing a set of services at a very competitive price. Time after time, they find that an extra dollar spent on prevention now will improve the long-term cost-effectiveness of their services.

On prevention, we need more involvement by private contractors. Brush clearance around homes and neighborhoods is hard, dirty work. Prevention regulations are sometimes scaled down because of complaints that meeting them may be too physically onerous on some homeowners. In these cases, private responsibility for fire prevention can be met by contractors. The same applies to retrofitting older houses to make them more resistant to hours of ember attacks and a few minutes of direct flame attacks.

The size and frequency of wildfires may increase with climate change; how deadly or expensive they are depends on how many people choose to live in harm’s way. Like earthquakes, fires are a known risk we accept living in California. As the cost of the way we fight fires increases, I agree that we will probably see more involvement by the private sector. And with budget crunches being a fact of life from individual households up to the U.S. Treasury, the private sector has an opportunity to show us new ways of providing cost-effective fire services.

William Stewart is a forestry specialist at UC Berkeley.