Rising Cost of Wildfire Protection


Headwaters Economics has released a report on the Rising Cost of Wildfire Protection in the Western United States. The organization, along with Ross W. Gorte formerly of the Congressional Research Service, “produced this report to better understand and address why wildfires are becoming more severe and expensive.”

Wildfires are becoming increasingly detrimental, with six of the worst fire seasons since 1960 occurring after 2000. Three of these fires – in 2006, 2007, and 2012 – consumed more than 9 million acres. These larger fires are likely the result of two factors: “a widespread build-up of fuels, due to historic management practices, and changing climatic conditions, with resulting hotter, drier weather.”

However, with the increasing development of private lands near fire-prone areas, wildfire protection is also becoming more expensive. “Wildfire protection now accounts for nearly half of the Forest Service annual budget, and more than 10 percent of the budget for all Department of the Interior agencies. These figures do not include the $1-$2 billion spent by states on wildfire protection or an untold amount spent by local governments.”

According to the Headwaters Economics, “national wildfire fighting costs have averaged $1.8 billion annually for the past five years, and the 2012 fire season was among the worst on record for many regions and states.” The organization estimates that further development in the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI), would cause “annual firefighting costs [to] explode to between $2.3 and $4.3 billion.” An interactive map produced by the organization shows that 84% of the WUI in the West is currently underdeveloped.

“In sum, wildfires continue to burn more acres, damage more resources, and threaten more people and houses. The rising costs of wildfire protection can only be addressed by reducing biomass fuels on all lands and by constraining the development of the WUI. Because the WUI is private property, the primary responsibility lies with state and local governments, but the federal government has borne a disproportionate share of the cost of WUI fire protection. State and local governments must become partners with the federal government, willingly or unwillingly, to control the burgeoning cost of wildfire protection in the WUI.”

Article formerly posted at https://www.hsdl.org/blog/newpost/view/s_4812