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Nation’s chief wildfire-proofing program may not reduce firefighting costs

Federal firefighting outlays have more than tripled in the last 10 years, and are already projected to run a half-billion dollars over budget for 2014. 

Residents evacuate their homes in Rancho Cucamonga, California, as wildfire driven by the Santa Ana winds threaten the town.

The 2014 wildfire season is off to a thankfully slow start in much of the American West — excepting California, where the very notion of a fire season has become a thing of past, since there’s now a good chance of something burning somewhere every day of the year.

That’s one measure of the new normal in American wildland fire, and here’s another:

As of Tuesday, when Sally Jewell surveyed the situation around San Diego, the state firefighting agency Cal Fire had already battled 1,244 fires since New Year’s Day, which is more than three times the average rate from 2009 through 2013. There were more than 400 just in January, versus a handful in the first month of last year.

And, as the Interior secretary noted, “it’s not going to get better over the course of this year,” because drought is the driver of the new patterns, and climate change is a driver of drought.

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California stores much of its surface water in the Sierra Nevada snowpack, which was less than one-fifth of normal at the beginning of the month. Its forests, canyons and brushy slopes store fire-retarding moisture in leafy green growth that has especially been slow to form this year.

Jewell’s visit fell during a Wildfire Awareness Week proclaimed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who has promised to spend whatever it takes to save lives and property from fire. Jewell pledged full support from the federal budget as well. Both spoke of the importance of persuading individuals and communities to do everything possible to prevent wildfires.

But an interesting new study — and apparently the very first on this question — suggests that a key national program for fireproofing communities has little if any impact on the costs of protecting them once fire breaks out.

We all pay the price for firefighting

Those costs are ballooning: Federal outlays have more than tripled in the last 10 years, and are already projected to run a half-billion dollars over budget for 2014. This should matter as much to Minnesotans as to Californians, because when it comes to  wildland fire, we all pay the price.

As with tobacco use, the public costs are driven upward by private lifestyle choices. And those choices are still being tolerated — even enabled — by governments and insurance companies that know better.

Besides climate, two other principal factors are driving the national pattern of worsening wildfire: build-up of fire fuels thanks to a century of excessive fire suppression, and expansion of residential development — especially second homes — at the forest’s fringe, in the so-called “wildland-urban interface” (WUI).

There is general agreement that “fuels reduction” in the WUI through selective logging, brush removal and controlled burns is essential to reducing wildfire risk. But it is expensive work, which limits its usefulness to highly localized efforts.

A much tougher problem is expansion of homes into the WUI, because zoning and land-use policies are in the hands of local governments who profit from the new development but bear a tiny fraction of firefighting costs. Insurance companies further encourage unwise settlement by underwriting homes in high-risk zones.

For nearly 20 years now, federal and state agencies have promoted the industry-sponsored Firewise program as a way of reducing firefighting costs by raising the fire resistance of the dwellings and other structures they are obligated to protect.

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Participation can be minimal

Homeowners who participate can get advice, and sometimes financial support, in making their places less vulnerable to fire (and, not incidentally, less hazardous to firefighters). Communities, too, can get help for preventive efforts, and these can be surprisingly minimal:

Each Firewise-designated community must complete a series of actions before receiving Firewise accreditation. First, they must get a written wildfire risk assessment from their state forestry agency or fire department. Communities are then required to form a board or committee and generate an action plan based on their risk assessment.  Next, they must organize and hold a public education “Firewise Day” event. 

The final step requires an investment of at least $2 per person in annual Firewise actions [that’s not a typo; the requirement is two bucks per person per year]. Once these steps are completed, communities are eligible to apply for the designation through their state Firewise liaison.

Examples of Firewise actions include safe placement of structures relative to ridges and slopes, using fire-resistant landscaping in various zones around homes, improving construction and maintenance of roofs and gutters, and establishing neighborhood communication and evacuation protocols.

That description is from a study by Headwaters Economics of Bozeman, Montana, which asked the perfectly reasonable question of what the firefighting agencies — and the taxpayers who support them — realize in return for such investments, in the form of lowered firefighting costs. And the answer may well be: Nothing.

It should be noted that Headwaters Economics, of whose work I’ve written before, is devoted to protecting undeveloped land in the West. But it has a reputation for solid research, and this paper struck me as based on sound methods and fair analysis; it is being submitted for publication in the peer-reviewed Journal of Society and Natural Resources.

Its researchers looked at firefighting outlays in 111 Western wildfires that burned between 2007 and 2011, and for which good data on costs and conditions were available. It divided these into two groups:

  • 25 fires that approached within six miles of a Firewise-designated community.
  • 86 fires that burned in areas more than six miles from a Firewise community.

Several factors were found to influence the outlays required to fight these fires — like fire size and duration, type of terrain, and availability of access roads — but Firewise designation was not among them. Neither was the level of Firewise participation, which varies a lot from community to community.

This is not to say that the program is worthless; Headwaters Economics acknowledges that Firewise practices have been shown to raise the fire-survival rate of structures.

However, it is not possible to infer from these studies how homeowner actions may translate into changes in fire suppression efforts, including changes to firefighter safety and to suppression costs.  What is missing is quantitative information about the impacts of community-level wildfire preparedness, which incorporates neighborhood communication and evacuation protocols in addition to home-site action, on wildfire management outcomes….

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This topic has been identified as a research need by policymakers and wildfire practitioners who want to learn more about the cost trade-offs of wildfire mitigation, including Firewise, versus suppression.

Bottom line:

The lack of evidence that Firewise reduces suppression costs suggests that policymakers attempting to address rising suppression costs are better served focusing on other solutions, including increasing suppression funding and managing future development in high-risk areas.

Here’s betting we’ll see a lot more effort devoted to finding more money for fire suppression than to shrinking the need for it, by reducing the availability of wild land for second homes — or by telling their builders they can no longer buy insurance for dumb decisions.