U.S. Senate

When it Comes to Fighting Wildfires ‘Big Government’ Works

On the afternoon of Tuesday August 20, 2013 a wildfire of undetermined origin started in the Custer National Forest just five miles south of the town of Red Lodge, Montana, which happens to also be the community I call home. Within the first five hours the fire quickly spread to over 500 acres and forced the closure of US Highway 212 (the Beartooth Highway), and prompted the evacuation of several homes and businesses along the highway.

Of the 137 active wildfires currently burning in the American West, the Rock Creek Fire, which has since grown to 950 acres is not especially large. However, because it was burning on exceedingly steep terrain  in an area where weather and wind patterns are notoriously unpredictable, and because it was burning near a significant town, the fire threatened over 500 nearby homes and businesses with destruction.  As of September 1, 2013 the fire is 85 percent contained and not a single one of the 546 structures that were listed as threatened by the fire have burned. In addition, nobody has been killed by the blaze. Remarkably, the fire has not taken a single life or damaged a single home or business after nearly two weeks of activity.

The fire’s fury has been tamed not by the virtue of free market “for profit” industry or the volunteerism of conservative and Libertarian philosophers armed with hoses and shovels, but by the power of a coordinated government response that included a lot of federal taxpayer dollars. The conservative mantra has long been that the private “for profit” sector always does things better and more efficiently than government. For example, FOX News commentator John Stossel is fond of arguing that “there is nothing that government can do that we cannot do better as free individuals”. Yet, it is pretty clear that fighting big wildfires is something the government does quite well, and something that private “for profit” industry would be ill equipped or unwilling to handle by comparison.

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The taming of the Rock Creek Fire is a vivid testament to the effectiveness of government coordination and efficiency in eliminating the threat of a potentially deadly wildfire. Within 48 hours after the fire had started, a coordinated effort launched by government agencies, assembled the resources and personnel to fight the fire. A Northern Rockies Incident Management Team, under the command of Shawn Pearson came into town and began working to suppress the fire, coordinating efforts with local fire chief Tom Kuntz.

Led by the National Forest Service in coordination with multiple local, county, state and federal agencies, the management team secured the boundaries of the fire, protecting homes and lives in the process. Firefighters were imported from as far away as New Hampshire and Maine. A Navajo hot shot team was brought in from Arizona. Helicopters and bulldozers were brought in to harness and contain the fire. Large planes made dozens of retardant drops to halt the fire’s advance over a ridge line preventing it from spreading into the West Fork Rock Creek drainage where many homes would have been imperiled.

By all accounts, the fire fighting effort has been flawless. Not a single life was lost and not a single man made structure was destroyed. It is hard to imagine that the for profit industry could match the government’s accomplishment in fighting a wildfire of this magnitude. The town of Red Lodge has just 2500 residents. The entire county, Carbon County, almost the size of Delaware, has just over 10,000 residents. Even with an exceptional fire chief and some of the best volunteer firefighters in the country, the community simply does not have the resources to fight a large fire by itself.

Nor would it have the financial capacity to pay a for-profit company the amount of money it would require to tackle a major wildfire. If private agencies were in the business of fighting fires they might pass on giving the Red Lodge community any coverage at all, since with three major fire events in the last decade and a half, it would probably be dropped from consideration for being high risk or having a pre-existing condition that makes it prone to wildfire. The bottom line is that some things are done best by the government and that includes protecting small communities from large wildfires. The purpose of government is to work collectively for the common good unlike private industry whose goal is to maximize profits for shareholders while providing consumer goods or services at a cost to the individual seeking the goods or services. Consequently, the government is better equipped for large scale cooperative projects that serve the public interest such as suppressing major wildfires.

Ironically Montana, like so many Western states, is home to a significant number of residents who are disdainful of federal government spending, even though the state receives more in federal government dollars than it pays in. In addition, the state has a history of electing Republican federal representatives whose dislike of government workers is so great that they have openly disrespected firefighters. In 2006, then Montana Senator Conrad Burns (R), at the Billings Airport, berated hotshot firefighters who had come all the way from Virginia to combat a massive wild fire, pointing to one firefighter randomly and  remarking aloud “see that guy over there? He hasn’t done a god damned thing” and adding verbally that the firefighters had done a “piss poor job”. He was subsequently defeated by Democrat Jon Tester in the November 2006 election. Tester’s 2012 opponent, former Congressman Denny Rehberg (R) repeated Burn’s public relations mistake by suing firefighters for damaging property values in a subdivision he owned because some of the trees on the property were burned. Tester, in turn, defeated him in 2012.

While Republicans and Libertarians are eager to recite Ronald Reagan’s famous quip that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are ”I’m from the government and I’m here to help”, the fact is that residents of Western communities facing raging wildfires are more than eager to receive the generous and competent help of professional firefighters from near and far who can put their fears of nature’s blazing fury to rest.

Taxpayer funded firefighters may not create wealth, as Rush Limbaugh likes to note, but in Red Lodge Montana they did protect over 500 homes and businesses belonging to people, some of whom work in the private sector and do create wealth. As the remnants of a once formidable wildfire smolder in impotence, the residents of my community are grateful for the help. Other residents throughout the American West, I am sure are equally grateful for the help they too are receiving, compliments of public service being performed by government workers and firefighters. Salute those workers this labor day, because they work for you and me.




Image: InciWeb

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