Use Private Firefighters to Improve Wildfire Protection

Today, tomorrow, and Friday I am participating in a three-part, point-counterpoint discussion of wildfire protection services in California on the L.A. Times Web site. My counterpart is William Stewart, a forestry specialist at UC Berkeley.

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 disaster response?

In my commentary, I argue that the problem is not that there are not enough resources to fight fires–in fact, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) budget has continued to increase despite the recession–and that if any additional resources are deemed necessary, the answer is not more taxes, but rather an adjustment of state priorities and the diversion of funding from wasteful spending and lower-priority or poorly-performing programs to productive programs and functions that will protect lives and property. In addition, California should tap the resources of the rapidly-growing private-sector wildfire protection industry, which, like numerous other private-sector alternatives, typically offers equal or better services at lower costs. Dr. Stewart points out that property owners must accept some responsibility for living in fire-prone areas, and agrees that there is a role for private contractors in providing fire protection services.

See my commentary and Dr. Stewart’s response here.

Below is an excerpt from my article.

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 wildland firefighters. NWSA reports that about 40% of the resources devoted to fighting wildland 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.

Tomorrow we will be discussing what government does right about preventing and fighting wildfires, and what it does wrong. Stay tuned!