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Fighting Fires Is Big Business for Private Companies

Firefighting is an expensive business, and much of that business is going to private companies. Will they put profit over the environment?

Photo Credit: AFP


As the  Rim Fire burnt its way into the record books this summer, hundreds of firefighters, as well as fire engines, airplanes, helicopters, and bulldozers, were used to try and bring the blaze under control. Sparked by a hunter’s illegal campfire, the blaze, which crossed into Yosemite National Park, was the third largest in California’s history. Hundreds of square miles were burnt and more than $100 million were spent fighting it.

Firefighting is an expensive business, and much of that business is going to private companies. Contractors now supply local and national agencies with everything from fire engines to firefighters. The largest employer in this multi-million dollar industry is the United States Forest Service. Over the past three decades, private companies have become a familiar sight on fire lines around the country where green Forest Service trucks are frequently joined by fire engines marked with the logos of private firefighting companies.

US Forest Service Chief, Tom Tidwell, says the use of private contractors makes economic sense for the agency. “They don't work unless there's a fire,” he says. “It's a business risk they have to take, and it provides us with more flexibility.” “The Chief” as he is known in the agency, was in Oakland last year for an event promoting urban forestry where he hinted at a greater role for private firefighting in the future. “As we see more fires there may be more people who get into the business,” he said, Tidwell, however, insisted that this wouldn’t change the agency’s approach to firefighting.

Not everyone is convinced by that assurance. As the private firefighting industry has grown, so too has its influence on politicians and government. Despite, the rapid growth of the industry, there has been little public debate about the role of these companies until now. “Why is fire management on public lands being turned over to profit-seeking corporations?” asks Timothy Ingalsbee, Executive Director of  Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics, and Ecology. “They don't share the same interests as folks with a vision of long-term stewardship.” The main concern people like Ingalsbee share is that private companies are putting profit over the environment.

Fires are an important part of many North American ecosystems. (Read our  recent report about the ecological importance of forest fires.) Despite a long history of putting them out, in recent years the Forest Service has acknowledged the need to restore fire to the landscape. In a changing climate, that mission has become increasingly urgent. “I think we’re at a critical juncture” says Niel Lawrence senior attorney with the  Natural Resource Defense Council, “Because of the build-up of fuels in forests and because of the drying and increased temperatures because of climate change, forest fires are going to become more common…. if we don’t get fire back in the woods now, as things get warmer and more dry the further build up of fuels in the forests is going to make it not only impossible to protect our communities, but I think it’s going to make it impossible to get fire back in the woods at all.” (Listen to my radio story “ The Burning Issue: America’s War on Fire” on Making Contact.)

But are private firefighting companies, making it harder to restore fire to the woods?

Debates about the economic and environmental cost of fire suppression have been  heating up. Each year the Forest Service spends as much  as $100 million a week on firefighting. In 1991, fire suppression accounted for about 13 percent of the agency’s budget, but by 2012 it made up more than  40 percent. Frequently, this hasn’t been enough to cover fire suppression, and in recent years the agency has regularly overspent. After burning through its fire suppression budget this year, the  agency announced in August that it was cutting $600 million in other areas of its work, to fund firefighting, leading some to disparagingly refer to it as the “Fire Service.”

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