Federal government's burning through a lot of dough — and ham

August 15, 2008 12:00 am

The Forest Service admits publicly that it has gone through a billion dollars fighting fires this year. Yet the agency still hasn't made a comparatively cheap phone call to apologize for procuring, for itself, my ham sandwich.

I'd even settle for an e-mail if the Forest Service wants to save the long-distance charges.

It seems to me, though, that given the federal government's extravagant spending habits — a severe illness of which the Forest Service's fire outlay is but a minor symptom — the outfit could spring for one of those cards that plays a song when you open it.

I'll bet the feds could raise a billion just by rooting for change between their sofa cushions.

That billion-dollar firefighting tab has spawned a passel of headlines during the past week but that figure, despite its wealth of zeros, means little to me.

Possibly this is because none of those dollars has come straight from my wallet. At least no one wearing a bright yellow shirt and clutching a shovel has banged on my door and asked me to pitch in a few bucks.

The ham sandwich episode, though, really hurt.

I was taking my annual trip through the sagebrush steppe of Southeastern Oregon, traveling with my dad, Alan, my son, Alexander, and my nephew, Andrew (which I realize is quite a lot of capital A's, now that I see them scrolled across the screen).

We'd driven most of the way around Harney Lake on Sunday afternoon. Which is to say we had accumulated 60 miles of alkali dust, most of it in my eyes. When we got back to Burns we were hungry. And gritty. Andrew, given the choice in deference to his being the youngest of our quartet (he's 10), picked Subway. This sounded good to me.

I started thinking how delicious a ham-and-cheddar would taste, the cheese oozing over the bottom slice of browned bread after the sandwich's stint in the toaster oven.

I noticed the sign right off when we walked in. It was printed in black letters on a sheet of white paper taped to the curved plastic shield that prevents customers from sneezing all over the pickles and the lettuce.

The gist of this notice was that the restaurant had laid every slice of its ham on sandwiches that went to the firefighters working on the Silvies River blaze northwest of town.

Also the toaster oven was busted.

The sign didn't so much as imply a link between the appliance's failure and the recent arrival of several hundred firefighters.

But I know better.

Anyway I settled for prime rib nudged to a tepid state in the microwave.

It was next morning at breakfast when I first read about the Forest Service's billion-dollar outlay.

This got me to thinking about what I and all those other taxpayers are getting for our money (I already knew what some of us are not getting, which is ham sandwiches).

Most of us aren't getting an insurance check after our house burns down, for one thing.

Nonetheless, I've visited a few fire camps and what I saw there convinced me that the Forest Service and the BLM and the myriad other agencies that put out wildfires could get by with, say, 10 percent less stuff and still protect the public and its property.

Stuff like helicopters, for instance, which are considerably more expensive than ham sandwiches.

We saw one of those — a helicopter, not a ham sandwich — dumping water on a lightning fire on the west flank of Steens Mountain on Saturday afternoon.

The fire was creeping around, in what seemed to me desultory fashion, amid sagebrush and grass and juniper. Which pretty accurately describes about 200 million acres in Southeastern Oregon. Yet the federal government — by which I mean myself and a lot of other people who like money, and ham sandwiches — was doling out at least a few thousand dollars per hour to dump water on a fire that burned 205 acres.

I don't mean to contend that the money was wasted.

Maybe the helicopter spared 50,000 acres on the Steens, which ranks high on my list of Oregon's greatest natural treasures. Maybe a crew of 10 firefighters, which even combined command much more modest wages than a single chopper, couldn't have stopped the fire.

That all rings false to me, though.

Fire's no enemy to the sagebrush steppe, certainly — it's no coincidence that the greenest patches of desert come spring are in many cases the patches that burned the summer before.

Anyway it seemed to me that the helicopter was an awfully large and costly tool to handle such a diminutive task — sort of like renting a backhoe to plant a few petunias.

I doubt, though, that this year's billion-dollar firefighting budget will be the Forest Service's last.

I think Americans, in the main, consider fire a destructive, negative force rather than a restorative and desirable one. Sometimes they're right.

But so long as this is the case, the federal government, as it has for most of the past century, will continue to respond to wildfires much as it does to wars — with a blank check.

Fire bosses haven't much incentive to skimp, certainly. If, for instance, the official who called in the helicopter to pour water on the Steens fire had decided he didn't need that aircraft, the chopper probably would have flown to another fire, gulping taxpayer-supplied fuel all the way.

Money never gets saved in such a system — it just gets spent somewhere else.

I don't want the Forest Service and other agencies to stop fighting all fires. Or even most fires.

But I'd appreciate it if the federal government acknowledged that it can manage, many times, with just a bit less money.

Ten percent of what's in your wallet might seem a paltry figure, but apply it to $1 billion and you've got $100 million.

Which would pay for a fair number of helicopters.

And a whole lot of ham.

Jayson Jacoby is the editor of the Baker City Herald.