As spring arrives, this year’s forest fire season will be upon us soon. The price of fighting forest fires has been increasing substantially, now accounting for close to half of the Forest Service’s budget and costing the taxpayer billions. Yet we have failed to address the root causes of these escalating expenses.
The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management often have to pay for fire fighting by raiding other programs. Congress has started to address this issue, and the House of Representatives recently passed the FLAME Act, which will create a separate account to fund fighting the most expensive wildland fires. If this passes the Senate and becomes law, biologists and recreation managers no longer may have to fear for their budgets when large fires break out.
Unfortunately, the FLAME Act by itself will do nothing to address a key reason of why forest fires have become so expensive – the increasing number of homes on private land near forested public lands.
Across the West today, only 14 percent of private land adjacent to forests has homes on it. But this relatively small percentage is tremendously expensive. When combining local, state and federal efforts, the cost to protect homes from forest fires exceeds $1 billion per year. If 50 percent of the forested private lands were developed, fire fighting costs could exceed $4 billion, almost the size of the Forest Service’s entire budget.
A recent case study analysis of Montana by Headwaters Economics illustrates the gravity of the problem. On average, protecting homes from forest fires in Montana costs $28 million annually. If no restrictions are placed on future home construction, the costs likely will rise to $40 million by 2025.
Climate change has increased costs even further. From past evidence, we know that a one-degree increase in average summer-time temperature is associated with a doubling of home protection costs. So in Montana, with additional development and hotter summers, the cost of protecting homes from forest fires could exceed $80 million by 2025.
That’s a large bill for a state with less than a million people, and other states already are seeing much larger bills. In 2008, for example, fire suppression costs in California alone were more than $1 billion.
Fire is a natural part of most forests and history shows that we cannot banish fire from the landscape. All types of lands—whether federal or private, logged or wilderness—have burned in recent years.
In this context, the current approach to fire suppression has perverse incentives and lacks accountability. People who develop in forested areas, and local governments that allow such new subdivisions, do not pay their share of fire fighting costs. The majority of firefighting expenses instead are paid by the Forest Service, BLM, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In other words, the national taxpayer picks up the tab.
Some communities have started to adopt Firewise protections; clearing defensible space and using better building materials. This is an important step to improve safety for homes on the 14 percent of already developed private land near forests. Firewise, however, could unintentionally encourage sprawl on the remaining 86 percent of land near public forests, if it sends the message that you can safely build anywhere
Our current policy for paying fire fighting costs is not sustainable. We can address this problem, and now is the time to implement responsible, accountable steps that can hold the line on future fire costs.
Every year federal agencies direct money to counties for various forms of fire-related assistance that could be used as an incentive for possible solutions. The stimulus bill, for example, included $250 million for the Forest Service to use for helping counties with “wildland fire management.” This represents an opportunity to implement better policies such as having states map their ‘fire plain,’ to apply lessons learned from floodplain regulations, requiring counties agree to more equitable cost-sharing contracts, or variable insurance rates.
Unless we address one of the root causes of the problem—home building in wildfire prone areas—the costs of fighting forest fires will continue to escalate.
Ray Rasker Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Headwaters Economics, an independent nonprofit research group that provides resources for improving community development and land management decisions in the West.
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