Wildfires Can Mean Money to Burn.


Mar 11, 2001
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Wildfires Can Mean Money to Burn.

Sunday, July 29, 2001


  MISSOULA, Mont. -- Plagued by wildfires? Fear not. The Proteus Fire Master stands ready to help -- for $6,000 a day.

   With the clatter of steel treads and the whine of a 300-horsepower diesel engine, the 26-ton firefighting juggernaut climbs out of a steep gully on the "Proteus Proving Grounds," a chewed-up back lot near the Missoula airport.

   Scott Peterson stands nearby, smiling. While the prospect of another long summer of flame fills many Westerners with dread, entrepreneurs such as Peterson smell opportunity in the smoky air.

   The Proteus can crawl through the forest near a blaze to scrape out bare-earth corridors with its 6-foot-wide bulldozer blade. Its hydraulic boom can topple trees 2 feet thick, then slice them up with a retractable chain saw. Hoses squirt water in all directions, fed by a 3,000-gallon tank that can be refilled on the run by a helicopter.

   Peterson's company, the Rough Terrain Technologies Group, rushed out a Proteus prototype last summer to help battle blazes on the Bitterroot National Forest. Encouraged by Forest Service officials, Peterson built three more of the contraptions for $350,000 apiece.

   He calls the $6,000 daily rental fee a bargain.
   "We figure we can replace 35 people with one Proteus," he says. "It's more efficient, it's safer, and it gets the water to where it's needed."

   Last year's fires, the worst in half a century, charred 8.4 million acres nationwide and cost the federal government $1.4 billion to fight. The blazes caught the attention of Congress, which approved an extra $1.6 billion to beef up budgets this year for fire research, suppression and prevention, and the thinning of forests to reduce dangerous fuel accu- mulations.

   All that money is giving a boost to the rural West's "fire economy," a thriving if unpredictable commerce in which residents are enriched by the very forces of nature that threaten to destroy them.

   Consider the Bitterroot Valley, where 365,000 acres burned last year, including nearly 20 percent of the Bitterroot National Forest. More than 1,500 people were evacuated, and 70 homes were destroyed. At the same time, however, the government was spending $74 million to fight the Bitterroot fires, a good portion of which trickled into the local economy.

   Benefiting from the fires is still a sensitive subject here.

   "It isn't discussed," says Dixie Dies, public information officer at the Bitterroot Forest headquarters in Hamilton. "There was so much hurt, people don't want to talk about who did well."

   But many did do well.

   One company collected $60 a day for each portable toilet -- 400 in all -- that it rented to the Forest Service. A housewife put the kids in day care and rented her Chevrolet Suburban to the Forest Service for $80 a day, then hired herself out at $11.63 an hour to drive it. She made $10,000.

  Heavy smoke forced the cancellation of the Ravalli County Fair. But then the Forest Service leased the fairgrounds as a fire camp, and fair operators cleared $200,000 -- 10 times the profit they usually make from the weeklong fair.

  Profiting from wildfire is part of Western history, says Stephen Pyne, an Arizona State University professor. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Northwest residents set fires in the woods, knowing they would get jobs fighting them, he says.

   Even now, Pyne says, forest managers tend to spend huge amounts on fighting fires and a pittance on preventing them or moderating their damage by thinning the forests.

  Pyne is encouraged that the extra money authorized by Congress includes funds for research and for thinning the forests -- but he warns that such funding can be short-lived.

   The Bitterroot National Forest received a 30 percent funding increase for firefighting this year, which translates to about 30 extra jobs, says Chuck Stanich, the forest's deputy fire management officer.

   Forest officials are identifying areas of heavy timber as candidates for fuel-reduction projects -- work that could employ idled loggers.

   And the Bitterroot's fire boom continues, even without active flame.

  Since May, a government work crew representing both sides of wildfire's economic fallout has toiled on blackened hillsides around the valley. Hired under a $2.6 million grant from the federal Labor Department, crew members earn $8 to $17 per hour planting trees, laying straw mats and rearranging logs to reduce erosion.

   It's decent work in an area where jobs are scarce, but there's a catch: To qualify, applicants had to show they had been hurt by last summer's fires.

   Crew boss Doug Bower guided fly-fishing clients on the Bitterroot River last summer until the fires shut him down. Crew member Cathy Palin watched helplessly as last year's drought killed her fields of strawberries.

   More than anyone, crew member Nathan Olson is aware of the ups and downs of the fire economy.

   A high-school science teacher in the town of Darby, Olson had just finished building his dream home last summer when the fires broke out.

   Forced to leave as flames approached, he went to work fighting blazes elsewhere in the forest. When he returned home, he found rubble. Now his 30-acre property, once crowded with pines, is a study in black and gray.

   Since the work crew's mission is to help private landowners, program managers decided Olson's property was a fine place to do some erosion-control work. And so, on a recent sweltering day, Olson found himself being paid by the government to rehabilitate his own land.

   Insurance paid for his destroyed home, and Olson has started to rebuild. His property taxes are half what they used to be, since most of the trees are dead.

  After the fires, friends asked if he was going to move away.

   "It never even crossed my mind," Olson said. "This is my home, and fires are part of the ecosystem. If you want to live here, you have to live with what you get."


Well-known member
Mar 19, 2001
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Tax money to burn.  This is why they will never just let it burn.  Just more subsadies, and the population of tax sucking leaches keeps growing. Sure makes working for cash look better all the time.

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