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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.

Now’s the Time to Tackle Forest Fire Fighting Costs

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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11 comments

  1. Ray,
    Thanks for writing on an important subject. Yes firefighting costs are out of control. The reasons costs are so high are not only as you mentioned the private/public interface but also high fuel loads, and a fire-fighting community that has done a really good job of building a large infrastructure that has become the accepted norm. Realistically we can expect the number of people living in the wildland urban interface (WUI) to increase steadily in the future. People like to live in pretty places, that’s not going to change.
    From my viewpoint it seems that our best option as taxpayers is to reduce the need to fight fires. Realistically we’re not going to just stop fighting fires, and hoping for zoning or other laws to hold homeowners accountable for their risk is a nice idea but seems difficult to make happen.
    What we should be doing is a better job of managing fuel loads along the WUI. Firewise measures is a good first step but it needs to be expanded further onto the public land base. If we can manage the fuel loads near private land we can manage the amount of reponse needed to fight fires. Managed fuel loads near private land will create more opportunities to allow some wildfires to burn with no or at least heavily reduced suppression efforts. This will save the taxpayers dollars in suppression costs, it will help sustain local organic tree harvesting on our public lands and will help to reintroduce fire to a landscape that badly needs it.
    Disclaimer: I realize my ideas don’t translate well in every location, but I do believe it would apply fairly well to a lot of the Intermountain West.

  2. Why not require insurance premiums from folks who build within the interface–let them build anywhere they can buy land; but let it be known they are on their own for fire protection.

    Or we could do like the BUSHISTAs did and not put the war or the fires in our budgets.
    Just soak everybody not making a profit from the conflagrations.

  3. Here we go again with dishonest deflectionist rhetoric from those who would never see trees cut, nor any homes built from same, anywhere.
    The problem in the forest is not homes, but ahistoric fire fuel levels. Growth in the National Forests is far above removals, even with the outrageous level of megafire we’ve seen in the last decade. The wood is stacked SO danged high out there on the NF’s its not even a joke anymore, it’s a tragedy.
    Wildfire in the “interface” was not, and would not be, an issue for Ray to spin if National Forests were actively managed. By active management, I mean a combination of efficient and systematic actions taken along both the lines of physical vegetation removal for wood and fuel, AND a series of induced, prescribed fires over time.
    And I must assert that trees in the forest have value. They have value alive as habitat, value that is lost when burnt. They also have value cut down, either processed into building materials, or chewed up into hog fuel where the heat they release can be harnessed for energy IN A CONTROLLED AND CLEAN MATTER especially compared to unmitigated wildfire.
    I’m just waiting for Headwaters Economics to change their name to something more appropriate: Headtrippers.

  4. How about a cost analysis of firefighting costs before versus after private contracting became the chanted mantra of the U.S.F.S.?

    Think we may find a correlation there as well?

    Besides the overloaded forests, a circumstance due to decades of wrongheaded F.S. policy, and as such is far more causal of mega-fires than a 0.7 degree celsius rise in temperature, an investigation into the costs of this contracting would be an eye-opener.

    We’re heading for, or have already entered into a period of low solar activity. Expect the recent and hardly unusual rise in temperatures to exit in favor of the onset of the norm – cold and all the grand things that come along with it. And less fires as well.

  5. Johnny Thundersockeye

    Good point ,Maureen.Who knows what sort of fire seasons were going to be looking at now,for a while.After about 8 seasons of drought during 2000-2008 we now appear to be heading back towards a La Nina induced ,cool-phase of Pacific decadel Oscillation,which as we saw last summer appears to be a crucial element of the puzzle that defines snowpack levels,melt date perameters and thus fire season severity.After years of severe fire seasons ,with the sudden snowpack escalation of 2007-2008,and acompanying late melt,you couldnt find a descent fire to save your life last summer,at least not any where in the montane or subalpine zone.As a morel mushroom entrepreneur I cryed by September realizing theres little hope for much of a morel seaon any where during 2009,since there were so few fires in such habitat during 2008!As a skier and snow lover ,I’m elated though!!Just seems like any more its one extreme or another with weather -very little in between.
    People really need to start realizing that allowing a WU -Interface fire to get out of hand,like Gash Creek 2007 is dangerous and irresponsible,but Wilderness fires 20 miles west in the Selway should be allowed to burn!
    A lightning sparked fire burning in an ecosytsyem ,where such events are as common as the pyric regime-adapted tree species that have evolved there is an ecologically inept,financial waste of time and risk of life!However it is crucial to supress fires when property and urban interface lives are threatened by a juvenile delinquent seeking attention by playing with Bics on a windy,hot August afternoon!Obviously completely different situations.

  6. Johnny Thundersockeye

    Suppressing,I meant to say at the beginning of the 2nd paragraph.

  7. Does anyone else find it humorous that Obama says he is going to let science guide his policy, but he just allocated half a billion dollars to continue with Bush’s “Hazardous Fuels” campaign without even mentioning the science to support the allocation of funds. I mean come on, the Forest Service’s own scientists say if you clear the land within 30 meters of your place you’re in good shape. In essence, the Feds have become the largest provider of an unneeded insurance policy in the U.S. Meanwhile, many private property owners don’t want to be responsible and clear around their homes, but they expect the feds to take care of them when the fires start. The irony is that if you begin to regulate development they’ll cry about the 5th amendment–totally double standard and b.s. coming from all the “independent” Montanans that don’t want the feds interfering. To make matters worse, all these unnecessary logging sales are contributing to the climate change problem. There is certainly an argument to be made that thinning allows trees to grow, thereby increasing sequestration in the long term, with the added benefit of reducing the amount of carbon dioxide emissions from forest fires. This has become the party line for the agency. The only problem is that when this idea is taken to its logical extreme, the agency should cut down all the trees. In short, there is a gap in the science. In the meantime, the agency will continue to abuse a statute (HFRA) completely unmoored from science and turn a blind eye to its own scientists. Why is the Forest Service contributing to the climate change crisis in the name of a handful of private property owners?

    See JACK D. COHEN, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, FOREST SERVICE, ROCKY MOUNTAIN RESEARCH STATION, What is the Wildland Fire Threat to Homes 8-9 (2000)

    JACK COHEN, The Wildland Urban Interface Fire Problem, A Consequence of the Fire Exclusion Paradgim, FOREST HISTORY TODAY, 20, 22, 23 (2008)

  8. Mickey:

    Your assumption that planning and zoning drives up costs significantly is not substantiated by the facts.

    Oregon which has state wide zoning and planning isn’t more expensive to live in than places without zoning like Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

    You can buy a home for a lot less money in Eugene, Oregon’s second largest city than say Missoula, Boise, or Bozeman.

    Location, location, location is the biggest determination of price. You can buy a cheap house in Oregon and an expensive home in Idaho. Labor costs are among the biggest factors in home costs–and labor costs are more in some parts of the West than others. Beyond that home prices will largely be determined by location–desirable neighorhoods close to amenities, jobs, and good schools–more than any other factor determines prices.

  9. Sorry GEO, its not an assumption. Its a fact based on plenty of research. For starters: The Impact of Zoning on Housing Affordability by Edward L. Glaser and Joseph Gyourko , Harvard Institute of Economic Research; Don’t Regulate the Suburbs, America Needs a Housing Policy that Works by Wendell Cox and Ronald D. Utt, Ph.D.; Vanishing Automobile update #29 Housing Affordability and Land-Use Regulation.

  10. Mickey

    We could find references to support either notion. I will try to put my hands on a few that I have read, but as I recall the cost of land is a small part of the cost of housing. The biggest factors are labor and materials.

    However, you are correct in asserting that zoning can increase the cost of housing but largely because it increases the value of the property–i.e. people want to live in places with zoning because they know their investments will be protected. You know there won’t be surprises–a pig farm going in next to you or a new highway right next door and things like that. Zoning gives greater predictability.

  11. Ray,

    I suspect that the mantra that “increases in fire suppression costs are driven by increases in WUI homes” is another example of mistaking correlation for causality. Even the source for this thesis, the 2006 OIG report, lists “long-term drought” and an “unprecedented buildup of hazardous fuels” before WUI homes. And the OIG report provides no data whatsoever in support of its conclusions.

    The danger in attributing increases in fire suppression costs to the wrong cause is that the solution will not correct the problem.

    Some data may exist that might shed light on the WUI/suppression costs hypothesis. For example, compare the trend in per acre fire suppression costs in WA vs. OR since 1970 — the year Oregon adopted its state-wide land-use law that dramatically limits new home construction on agricultural and forest-zoned land. WA has had no comparable zoning laws during that period. Is the trend in per acre costs different between the two states over time? I’ll bet a six-pack that there is no statistically significant difference.

    Andy