Fighting wildfires is lucrative for private contractors, which is making fires bigger and more deadly

It feels like months ago already. But in mid-August, California was dealing with hundreds of out-of-control wildfires, causing hundreds of thousands to evacuate their homes—all while the pandemic raged on.

This week, fire crews struggling to contain the fires are reporting “great progress,” and experts are weighing in on how to do something—anything—to prevent future wildfires.

A number of those experts recently spoke to ProPublica about the dire need for more managed, intentional burning of uninhabited land. “We need to get good fire on the ground and whittle down some of that fuel load,” an environmental sociologist told reporter Elizabeth Weil.

But another front in the battle against wildfires rang loud and clear: Fire suppression is big business, especially for private contractors.

Before 1999, Cal Fire—the state’s fire department—never spent more than $100 million a year. In 2017-18, it spent $773 million. Then there are federal disaster funds divvied out through the U.S. Forest Service.

Much of that money flows to corporations, from Lockheed Martin, which provides 747s to drop fire retardant, to the private equity-owned company that manufacturers the retardant chemicals.

“The Halliburton model from the Middle East is kind of in effect for all the infrastructure that comes into fire camps,” one expert told Weil, referencing the Iraq war. “The catering, the trucks that you can sleep in that are air-conditioned…”

The takeaway here is that private involvement in firefighting incentivizes keeping the status quo. Instead of fire prevention—which costs less—Cal Fire and the Forest Service bring what Weil calls a “military mindset” to fire suppression, doling out bigger private contracts as the wildfires get bigger and bigger.

It’s the same incentive that helps keep the U.S. locked into the failed public safety approach of mass incarceration. Private, for-profit prison companies didn’t cause record high incarceration rates—yet they’re now making it harder to shrink the country’s massive, bloated criminal justice system. Their political influence helps undermine efforts to reform sentencing laws, emphasize rehabilitation, and reduce incarcerated populations.

There’s just too much money to be made to do the right thing. Which is why the public goods we all rely upon, from public safety to public education, to safe roads and clean water, should be under democratic, community control. And why we should limit private influence on policymaking as much as possible.

“In the Southeast—which [intentionally] burns more than twice as many acres as California each year—fire is defined as a public good,” writes Weil.

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