America’s war on wildfires – a cretinous critique

This week, while doing work on Rosebud Indian Reservation, several projects got disrupted when 60-mile-an-hour winds took a grass fire and turned it into a raging inferno that threatened several small towns and destroyed the livelihood of ranchers.  Hundreds of people, some from 200 miles away, responded to fight the fire, or at least prevent its destruction of the towns and more grass and timber.  It was one of several fires which threatened various parts of the West in a later than usual fire season.

A few weeks ago, I found this Yahoo article: America’s war on wildfires

We Americans LOVE our ‘wars’ – on poverty (remember LBJ), on drugs (starting with Richard Milhous Nixon), on inflation (Jerry Ford), and right up to George W’s War on Terrorism.

So of COURSE we need a war on wildfires.  And of COURSE, the FedGov is doing its usual marvelous job of WINNING that war – NOT.  This Yahoo column talks about how the US is supposedly losing the war against wildfires (even though the vast majority are caused by man’s activities, and no one speaks of a “war on house fires” or a “war on oil spills” – At least not YET.)  And of course, it is not just government action or inaction in actually working to “Prevent Forest Fire” or to respond to those that happen, but it is government inaction on banning us from breathing too much carbon dioxide or emitting too much methane (from another orifice) and thus saving the planet from the dreaded Manmade Global Warming that is to blame.

In the eyes of many libertarians (the minarchist kind) and a fair number of classical liberals and conservatives,  the ONLY justification for government is that it is supposed to defend the people against threats:  external invasion, internal crime, internal tyranny, stupid mistakes, and natural disasters.  Not necessarily (or even) bail them out, but protect life and property against these threats: organize defense against them, set up procedures and ensure that people are trained and equipped and supplied to deal with them.

Based on that thought,  immediately after organizing and deploying a navy to protect the sea lanes and shoreline against piracy and bully nations, an army and air force (militia, really) to protect the borders against invasion, having sheriffs and their deputies to assist in preventing and dealing with crime, and internal invasions and usurpation of power (with the ability to call on militia), most everything else falls into the category of “emergency preparedness and response.”  Indeed, most of the sheriff’s duties fall into this category as well:  planning for and dealing with such threats as storms (snow, tornado, hurricane, flash flood, etc.), earthquakes, and fires.  Having government to HELP with these things is not having government TAKE OVER dealing with these things anymore than having the sheriff around means that we should not be prepared to defend our homes and businesses, on our own or in cooperation with our neighbors.

(Of course, we anarchists point out that the most efficient AND effective way for us to defend ourselves IS to be reasonably well armed, in voluntary cooperation with our neighbors and whomever we may wish to contract with for security and response.  And that government just messes things up.  The exact same concept applies to protecting ourselves against natural and manmade disasters, whether fire, flood, storm, chemical spills, or whatever.)

Anyone who knows the history of the fire service and emergency services in general (emergency medical service, or EMS, fire service (EFS or FS), hazardous materials response operations (HAZWOPER), and so forth knows that the organizations which provide these services originally were established as either voluntary organizations (much like local militias) OR as private companies contracted with related providers, insurance agencies, or directly to potential users.  Just as local militias were eventually absorbed into state and then federal governments, most of these organizations have been absorbed as well.  There are many different paths to this, but today the overwhelming majority of emergency services are government-run and (to some degree) tax-funded.  And with most of these “government services,” the federal government has been increasingly involved, in funding and establishing standards and regulating and providing services and manpower directly and indirectly.  At first, such funding actually bypassed the states, and then the state governments realized that they were missing the gravy train and added their own levels of bureaucracy.

There are two basic types of fire:  structure fires (which may include fires in yards and fields and corrals and such), and wildfire.  Wildfire includes grass and brush and forest fires.  Although due to climate and man’s intervention, wildfire is most significant as a threat in the West and the lower Pacific Coast (due to low precipitation, mainly), it can happen almost anyplace, due to drought, build up of fuels, and stupid humans.  Florida swamps and Georgia forests and Maine timberland, are good examples.  But in the West, the situation with wildfires has grown steadily worse over a century-plus, due to several factors (of which “global warming” is NOT significant, if indeed a factor at all).

First is increased population and establishment of towns and cities.  (Prior to 1874, no one cared if a mountain or valley or two in the Black Hills burned: few people lived in the Hills and could move themselves and their dwellings and possessions out of danger’s way relatively quickly.)  Second was the misbegotten and foolish suppression of wildfires for decades. The “Smokey Bear” concept that ALL fire is bad and must be prevented or put out immediately.  So the ecosystem was disrupted and billions and billions of tons of fuel built up – and not just in woodlands and forests, but in prairies and swamps and more.  Third, as a result of the first two factors, the cost (physical and monetary) of fighting fires grew increasingly large.  A tipi or wickiup or log cabin and its contents is a tragic loss when they burn, but the family and community could and did replace it relatively quickly from materials locally available.  No so easy when it is a house and outbuildings or farmstead or business that is the result of decades of investment of earned capital, and the materials come from across the globe.  Fourth was the FURTHER intervention of government beyond the Smokey Bear stuff,  the skewing of the market by subsidies of insurance (as with floods), zoning and planning controls, environmental regulations, and – especially – refusal to sell the public lands off to private owners.

All this added up to the mess we have today.  Thousands of square miles burn, inevitably taking houses here and barns there, and power and communications lines and even roads and bridges and fences and more.  The cost of the fire damage is astronomical, and the cost of fighting the fires has exploded seemingly as rapidly as the fires.

Fire prevention and fighting efforts are generally supported (directly or indirectly) by the property owners.  Since eighty acres of cultivated cropland presents (even in very dry areas) far less of a risk of fire than native grassland or timberland, and since the development of water supply systems and improved building techniques reduced the number and cost of structural fires in towns and elsewhere, this meant that the more developed an area was, the less per capita fire protection cost.  BUT when much of the land is owned by entities that DON’T develop their land and leave it in tall grass or scrub or trees, AND suppress fire constantly, the ability to fight fires drops as the cost of doing so rises.

Even structure fires are often beyond the capability of local fire departments, and that goes ten times over for wildfires, whether in grass or brush or trees.  For this reason, fire service has always had mutual aid between adjacent departments or districts or zones.  This is no different from a defense unit of militia needing aid from an adjacent unit during a really bad time – or in the old days when a sheriff would ask a neighboring sheriff for some additional posse-members.  There was also some pooling of resources, such as specialized equipment (ladder-trucks in rural or frontier areas, or foam trucks).  Often businesses will provide specialized equipment for dealing with oil spills or derailments or at airports, usually related to their business in some ways. Again, this idea goes back many decades: mining companies bought and provided specialized mine rescue equipment to local volunteer fire companies.  Before the days of mil levies supporting the fire service, the cost was divided out based in large part on the risk of fire faced by the property owners.

But we have (at least in the West and the Pacific coast) a BIG problem.  Much of the land, especially in the areas with brush and forest, is owned by Uncle Sam.  Yes, supposedly he pays “PILT” (Payments In Lieu of Taxes) to the counties, and other special districts, but it based on the average in the county and NOT on special circumstances, such as giant tenderboxes waiting for the match.  So instead, Uncle Sam provides funding for purchasing of equipment and training, and all the other stuff.  This doesn’t go to those who need it most: it goes to those who write the best grant applications – who can suck up best to Uncle.  And like other grants, it comes with strings – must do this, can’t do that, have to provide this – whether it makes any sense or not.  And when Congress wants to spend money for something else, the programs and the grants get cut, and the locals are left without resources.  The locals are partly to blame because they didn’t think it through, but as we know FedGov agencies and Congress are VERY persuasive, and money speaks loudly.  So the Emergency Services are left in the lurch, and a bad fire year makes much hay for those who say this is yet ANOTHER area in which state and federal governments MUST take over to “protect” us.

Isn’t it time we started recognizing that the LAST thing we want to do is have the federal government involved in ANYthing?  You know, if I WERE a statist, I’d notice a couple of things: one, that people who own land in a community and don’t pay their taxes to support “necessary services” get the land seized for that failure to pay.  Two, those landowners who don’t take care of their land and create risks and threats to others often end up losing their land, their money, and even their freedom when local codes are enforced.

Except… these tools are only applied to the relatively weak individuals and companies. Maybe it is time to start applying them to the worst neighbor of all for most western communities: the federal government.

About TPOL Nathan

Follower of Christ Jesus (a christian), Pahasapan (resident of the Black Hills), Westerner, Lover of Liberty, Free-Market Anarchist, Engineer, Army Officer, Husband, Father, Historian, Writer, Evangelist. Successor to Lady Susan (Mama Liberty) at TPOL.
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