Which is worse for the environment–wildfires or suppressing them?

I was scrolling through the notes app on my iPhone recently and saw this question I posed to myself but never answered: Which is worse for the environment–wildfires or fighting them? Sitting in a chain coffee shop, quaffing caffein and eating a bagel, I figured, What better time to research that question than right now?

Fuck you, pay me

The first article I read is from OnEarth Magazine (yeah, I’d never heard of it either) by Michael Kodas. In Fighting More Forest Fires Will Come Back to Burn Us (2013), he describes the world of wildfire suppression as a corrupt, capitalist endeavor. He calls it the “fire industrial complex.” As he describes it, it’s similar to the prison industrial complex.

US prisons used to be run by bureaucrats who quietly went about their business housing humans as best they could and trying to ride out their careers without pissing off anyone who mattered enough to get them fired. Then some entrepreneurial capitalist types came along and said, shit, I’ll bet I could take this cobbled-together, slipshod prison cisdumb and turn it into a well-organized, shiny conveyor belt stretching straight from the public coffers to my wallet. And they did.

But along with profits came ethical conundrums. The purported primary purpose of the prison system for quite some time now has been to mold criminals into productive members of society–in prison speak, to reduce recidivism. But, for the prison industrial complex, a recidivist is the equivalent of a repeat customer. Private prison firms like CCA and GEO Group get paid for their head count, not their bed count. And the more troublesome the criminal (think violent, think insane, think can’t-wipe-her-own-ass-but-can-disembowel-you-with-a-plastic-spork), the higher the per diem.

So, with billions at stake, what do you think you would do? Would you spend millions carefully researching criminogenics and abnormal psychology and developing methodical, research-based, impact-oriented, holistic rehabilitation programs? Or would you do what served your bank accounts’ best interest and hand your ‘customers’ the equivalent of a loyalty rewards program?

Okay, that turned into a bit of a tangent; but, my point is, according to Kodas, the fire industrial complex is essentially the same animal. Private groups paid lobbyists big bucks to jerk off politicians and get them to pass legislation forcing local and federal officials to privatize the fighting of wildfires as well as to approach wildfires more aggressively. For decades, the policy has been to let the “little” fires burn in order to avoid bigger fires. With privatization, wildfire policies have regressed to an early-twentieth-century approach of dump a fuckton of water and chemicals on every little brush fire in the middle of Timfuckwho and pay Senator SucksCocksNWallets’s golfing buddy’s company to do it.

And oh the chemicals

On top of costing taxpayers billions, wildfire suppression is, of course, also killing the environment. In Wildfire: Red slurry’s toxic dark side (2012), Bruce Finley (of Denver Post nonfame), reports that Red Slurry (née LC95A)–the go-to chemical fire retardant those big airplanes (Finley calls them slurry bombers) dump on forest fires–is filled with toxins that pollute waterways and kill fish and frogs and endangered butterflies that even a Time Safari customer wouldn’t step on.

Finley says that, from 2007-2012, wildfire fighters have dumped an annual average of 486,385 gallons of fire retardant on this gods-green-earth. The Denver Post quotes Doug Laye, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional coordinator for endangered species, as saying, “There are other chemicals associated with it, but ammonia and the nitrates are the ones we’re currently aware of that are the largest concern […] These can change the water chemistry drastically. That can have a very quick and often lethal effect.”

Forest Service employees sued their own employer over the ramping up of chemically enhanced fire fighting, but as long as lobbyists make more then pubic servants it seems likely that politicians will continue to push legislation that furthers corporate interests to the detriment of the Bradbury-Eckels Rhopalocera.