This is the system that urban Americans encountered in the 20th century: the trusty fireman, the firehouse, the dalmatians, all that. But over decades, urban firefighting benefited from stricter building codes and strong unions that kept departments staffed up. The development of wildfire management has been quite another thing, as the Arizona State fire historian Stephen Pyne has noted.
From the early years of the 20th century until the late 1960s, the U.S. Forest Service adopted a line of fire suppression. Every fire was supposed to be put out, even in wildlands that scientists later discovered needed to burn. “An estimated 54 percent of California ecosystems are fire dependent, and most of the rest are fire adapted,” Pyne wrote in California: A Fire Survey. Fuel built up and natural cycles ground to a halt. Finally, after 1968, the Forest Service reversed course and began haltingly walking back its no-fire-is-good policy.
Wildland firefighters have to manage forces that are fundamentally beyond their control. Urban firefighters, on the other hand, still want to put out every fire. Meanwhile, urban sprawl and exurbs continue to push farther and farther into rural and wild areas.
Problems arise at the wildland-urban interface, where sprawl or exurb—which has to be protected like a city—meets backcountry that evolved to burn, and should do so.
This interface is exacerbated by a troubling chasm. Since 1968, when the Forest Service started taking a more naturalistic approach to letting wildfires burn, it has also cut full-time fire staff. But the fires—driven by climate change and an expansion of that same wildland-urban interface—have grown more destructive. The Camp Fire has killed more people and destroyed more buildings than any before it. And two months before the fire started, CalFire had already exhausted $431 million of its $443 million budget fighting earlier devastating fires.
Read: The worst is yet to come for California’s wildfires.
So, beginning in the mid-1980s and accelerating in recent years, Forest Service budget cuts and increasingly prevalent wildfires opened the door for private contractors to assume roles formerly held by government employees. In some cases, that looks like insurance companies sending crews out, à la 18th-century London, or KimYe ordering up some firefighters to tend to their manse.
But the change is broader and deeper than that, too. “The trend to privatize fire operations began seriously under the Reagan administration. It is now a full program, complete with lobbyists,” Pyne told me. “This goes far beyond private companies hired by insurance companies.”
The National Wildfire Suppression Association represents 250 private wildfire-fighting companies, who provide on-demand services to federal, state, and local governments. Budget cuts have forced privatization onto the Forest Service, as the NWSA itself explains. “The emergence of private contract resources—national and regional 20-person firefighting crews, engines, dozers, tenders and other specialized equipment, and support services such as caterers and shower/handwashing units—gives agencies the flexibility they need to increase or decrease support with the most cost effective solution,” the NWSA media backgrounder says.