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What we all pay for fighting wildfire, and saving homes built in harm’s way

We don’t let people build in flood plains, but will spend whatever it takes to save a palace in the fire zone.

A large driver of federal firefighting costs is the continued expansion of residential development into the forest's edge.
Illustration by Monte Dolack/Courtesy of Headwaters Economics

Shortly after Tuesday’s piece on wildfire risk went up, I heard from a reader who wanted to know more about the firefighting costs that are incurred in the western United States but borne by all taxpayers.

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It didn’t take long to find an excellent recent analysis of those costs, and of the factors driving them: a warming climate, forestlands made abnormally vulnerable through a century of fire suppression, and — especially— continuing expansion of residential development in the fire zone.

“The Rising Cost of Wildfire Protection,” published last June by Headwaters Economics of Bozeman, Mont., is the work of Ross Gorte, who does not lack for expert credentials or life experience. He holds a Ph.D. in forest economics, with a special focus on fire, and has worked for the U.S. Forest Service, the Congressional Research Service, the congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the National Forest Products Association.

A tripling of federal outlays

Here are some of his key points about costs:

  • Federal appropriations for fighting wildfire in the last decade are more than three times larger than they were a decade earlier: $3.13 billion per year, on average, from fiscal year 2002 through 2012, versus just under a billion ($920 million) from 1991 through 1999.

Those are actual dollars; using inflation-adjusted 2012 dollars, the comparison is $3.51 billion for 2002-2012 versus $1.39 billion for 1991-1999.

  • Funds spent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in response to wildfire have also soared, as FEMA responds to more fires with disaster assistance.

In the 1990s, FEMA grants in response to wildfire averaged $20.4 million a year, and more than half the total for that decade was spent in one bad fire year, 1998. From 2002 to 2011, FEMA’s average annual payments were more than three times larger: $71.2 million.

Courtesy of Headwaters Economics
Federal Wildfire Appropriations to the Forest Service and Department of the Interior, 1994 – 2012.

Prior to 2000, FEMA had responded to 11 major or emergency wildfire disaster declarations, with two in the 1950s, three in the 1970s, three in the 1980s and three in the 1990s. From 2000 through 2012, FEMA responded to 19 major or emergency wildfire disaster declarations.

  • These expenditures from the U.S. Treasury dwarf the amounts that are spent by the states where the fires are occurring, even though the states are responsible for firefighting on nearly twice as much acreage as federal agencies. For example, state outlays in 2010 totalled $1.43 billion. (Local governments pay for firefighting, too, but nobody tabulates those expenditures).

Bigger fires, longer seasons

In one sense these rising costs are the unavoidable consequences of a changing pattern of wildfire in the West, a relatively recent but steady shift toward larger and hotter fires over a longer season each year.

Continuing its analysis of the 2002-2012 period as compared with historical trends, the report notes that “The past decade has seen the six worst fire seasons of the past half-century, with three of them — 2006, 2007, and 2012 — exceeding 9 million acres.”

(And that observation actually understates the trend a bit. Looking at Gorte’s source statistics compiled by the National Interagency Fire Center, I found that the worst eight fire seasons since 1960 have occurred since 2000; that in each of these eight years, more than 7 million acres burned; and that, prior to 2000, the record includes only one 7-million-acre year, 1963.)

But the larger driver, really, is the continued expansion of residential development into the forest’s edge, at the zone known as the wildland-urban interface. This expansion

[I]mposes direct and indirect costs on the federal agencies in wildfire control efforts and in fuel reduction treatments… Federal wildfire suppression policy explicitly states that protecting human lives is the priority, and that protecting private property and natural resources are equal as the second priority.  However, the political reality is that protecting people’s homes is given priority over protecting lands and resources.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has noted that structures adjacent to federal lands can significantly alter fire control strategies and raise costs, because protecting structures commonly requires additional, special firebreaks and because fire managers often rely on expensive aircraft to drop fire retardant on and around the structures. In a survey of FS land managers, some estimated that 50 to 95 percent of firefighting costs were attributable to protection of private property [my emphasis added].

Undermining prevention

In addition to forcing the U.S. Forest Service, in particular, to fight or fight more intensively fires that might draw a more relaxed response if not for all those houses in the way, construction in the fire zone undermines prevention efforts in a number of ways:

Firefighting costs commonly exceed wildfire appropriations.  While normally it is illegal for agencies to spend more than is appropriated, the annual Interior appropriations acts  have included provisions authorizing the agencies to borrow unobligated funds from other accounts for emergency firefighting once wildfire appropriations have all been spent.

These transfers are made without direct congressional approval — a facet Gorte notes is “relatively rare among federal agencies” — and the accounts that are raided are of many different kinds. Some financed Forest Service training of private landowners in better forestry practices, or homeowners in better fire protection and prevention measures.

Others paid for land acquisition, road and building maintenance, recreation and wildlife habitat programs, and — perhaps most perversely— for “fuels reduction” to remove the 100-year accumulation of tinder that makes so many of today’s fires so intense.

Gorte says an argument can be made, although he does not make it himself, that current firefighting practices may encourage development in the wrong places by making the fire zone seem safer than it really is. Also, that FEMA’s willingness to cover disaster costs may ease the pressure on insurance companies (and their state-level regulators) to see that people building in the fire zone pay a fair premium for the risks they are creating.

What can be done? Very little, it would seem, as long as development in the fire zone is left to the whims of landowners and the self-interest of local governments that benefit from its enlargement of the tax base.

Gorte calls for expanded public-education programs such as Firewise, which can help willing homeowners take inexpensive, sensible steps to protect their places from fire, as long as they’re willing to push natural beauty back to a safe perimeter (experience has shown, alas, that many are not).

What solutions might look like

Other options, my emphasis added:

States could be encouraged to work with the insurance industry to authorize higher insurance premiums for houses in the WUI.  The federal tax code could be modified to reduce or eliminate the mortgage interest deduction for houses in the WUI.  Federal, state, and private funds could be used to acquire easements that could be managed to provide a firebreak/buffer for WUI communities.  Federal fire control efforts or funding assistance could be withheld from state and local governments that do not sign firefighting cost-share agreements…

Finally, unilateral federal action to reduce WUI fire costs may be feasible.  A national wildfire insurance program, akin to the National Flood Insurance Program, could be required for all construction in the WUI that has a federal nexus (e.g., permit approval, financing assistance) or for post-fire disaster assistance.

And in that last idea you can see reflected the fundamental lunacy of how we govern development in the wildland-urban interface:

We don’t let people build in flood plains, and if they build in areas near a flood plains we make them take out special insurance. But let them clear a little patch and put up a palace in a tinderbox of western forest and we stand ready to protect their bad judgment no matter the cost in federal dollars. Or, for that matter, in firefighters’ lives, of which 33 have been lost this season in the last count I saw.

As Ray Rasker, executive director at Headwaters Economics, told me Wednesday:

“Eighty-four percent of the WUI in the West is not yet developed, but the housing market is picking up and the climate is warming, And what is everyone doing?  Teaching folks how to continue to build in harm’s way.

“It’s crazy.”

The full text of Ross Gorte’s research paper can be read or downloaded here.

Isle Royale’s wolves

If you’re interested in the continuing story of Isle Royale’s wolves, I recommend a fine recent piece in The Nature Conservancy’s blog, and not only because it says nice things about MinnPost’s coverage.