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Environment & Science

Big fires, big business: The cost of fighting wildfires has ballooned in recent decades




Firefighters battle the Blue Cut wildfire near Cajon Pass, north of San Bernardino, California on August 16, 2016.  
A rapidly spreading fire raging east of Los Angeles forced the evacuation of more than 82,000 people on August 16 as the governor of California declared a state of emergency. Despite the efforts of 1,250 firefighters with more on the way, none of the inferno was contained as of late on August 16 , state firefighting agency Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff told AFP. The wildfire poses
Firefighters battle the Blue Cut wildfire near Cajon Pass, north of San Bernardino, California on August 16, 2016. A rapidly spreading fire raging east of Los Angeles forced the evacuation of more than 82,000 people on August 16 as the governor of California declared a state of emergency. Despite the efforts of 1,250 firefighters with more on the way, none of the inferno was contained as of late on August 16 , state firefighting agency Cal Fire spokeswoman Lynne Tolmachoff told AFP. The wildfire poses "imminent threat to public safety, rail traffic and structures," according to the website, which said 82,640 people fell under an evacuation warning. / AFP / RINGO CHIU (Photo credit should read RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images)
RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images

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It doesn't matter where you live, nature's threats are everywhere.

Case-in-point: Houston, Texas. Residents there are assessing the damage from last week's hurricane, as another threatens the Florida coast. 

But the perils don't end there. 

In California, at least 20 active wildfires are burning as of Thursday morning. These fires and the flames to come are likely to be of interest to one Michael Kodas.

Kodas is the author of the new book: "Megafire: The Race to Extinguish a Deadly Epidemic of Flame." 

In it, he makes the case that over the past three decades, wildfire fighting has ballooned to become a multi-billion dollar industry in the country – that's reason enough to rethink our relationship with forest fires.

In an interview with Take Two's A Martinez, Kodas outlines how the U.S. came to view this natural phenomenon, and when the country's antiquated attitude toward fires crossed a line. 

Highlights

When did we declare war on fire?

This goes back more than 100 years to the big burn of 1910, which was a fire about the size of Connecticut that burned in Idaho and Montana, about five years into the existence of the U.S. Forest Service. 

This fire was so intense that it actually nearly overran a guy named Ed Pulaski and his crew of firefighters. 

Years later, America latched onto this hero story of Ed Pulaski and everybody that fought this fire, even though the firefighters on the ground there said it was a total failure. 

The next several leaders of the U.S. Forest Service were all veterans of this fire and eventually they would implement what they called an "out by 10 am" policy, which was basically that we would extinguish every wildfire that was sighted in the United States by 10 am the day after it was sighted, regardless of whether it threatened humanity or human structures. 

That led to a vast firefighting operation that's proven to be very expensive for our government and changed the structure of many of our forests in the U.S. In some cases, it made those forests more prone to more severe fires today. 

How much money are we spending on this?

In the 1990s, the U.S. spent about $300 million a year on wildfire – that's fighting fires and preparing, preventing and helping landscapes recover from them afterward. 

That number in a bad fire year today can top $3 billion. The trajectory of expenditures on wildfire is on a very steep climb, and that's before you consider what states like California spend. 

It sounds like a growing business. Where is that money coming from and how is it usually spent?

When you're looking at the figures I gave there, we're talking about U.S. taxpayer's dollars, generally. 

About half or more goes to the private sector. One interesting way to get a sense of how much money there is in a wildfire is to just go by a fire camp when there's a big fire going on. The biggest profit line to private contractors is in aviation. The aircraft are incredibly expensive to operate. The retardants are often quite expensive. 

Press the blue play button above to hear about how climate change has contributed to more wildfires. Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.