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A billion-dollar wildfire season looms, with new homes sprouting in its path

“We anticipate another active fire year as above normal wildland fire potential exists across the north central United States,” said Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

The Forest Service’s middle-of-the-road prediction for its costs in the coming 2015 fire season is $1.225 billion.
REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

As most of Minnesota remained at high risk of forest and grassland fire this week, the nation’s wildfire fighter-in-chief told Congress that he’s expecting another unusually tough, billion-dollar, possibly budget-busting year.

And not just in the typically hot zones of California, Arizona and Colorado:

“We anticipate another active fire year as above normal wildland fire potential exists across the north central United States,” Tom Tidwell, chief of the U.S. Forest Service, told a Senate committee on Tuesday, “and above-normal wildland fire potential will threaten many parts of the West this summer.”

The service’s middle-of-the-road prediction for its costs in the coming 2015 fire season is $1.225 billion, with a 10 percent chance of exceeding $1.6 billion (and also, to be fair, a 10 percent chance of coming in under $800 million).

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All but that last figure would exceed the service’s 10-year rolling, inflation-adjusted average of $1.13 billion spent to suppress fire. And that average itself is high by historical standards, roughly treble the outlays of the 1990s.

Even if the bills add up to the midrange figure, Tidwell said, the Forest Service will almost certainly have to raid other budgets to pay for firefighting operations – another formerly exceptional circumstance that has become commonplace.

Since fiscal year 2002, the Forest Service has exceeded its appropriation for fire suppression in all but two years and has transferred funds seven times.  Transferring funds to cover the cost of wildfire suppression is disruptive and harmful to other critical Forest Service programs and services, including efforts to reduce wildfire risk through mechanical thinning, prescribed fires, and other means.

Prevention programs suffer

If that sounds to you like the Forest Service can’t fully fund its efforts to prevent and confine fires because it has to spend so much just snuffing them out, you have it exactly right. Moreover, the Forest Service anticipates these probable transfers despite a White House budget reform that, if Congress agrees, will allow the costs of some huge fires to be paid as if they were natural disasters rather than the recurring annual obligations that, in fact, they are.

Is this nuts or what?

I think it is nuts, and costly in ways that Tidwell said go way beyond the bills for smoke jumpers and air tankers:

Extreme wildfire threatens lives and the natural resources people need and value, such as clean, abundant water; clean air; fish and wildlife habitat; open space for recreation; and other forest products and services.

And wildfire patterns have continued to worsen, Tidwell said, as

… Fire seasons have grown longer and the frequency, size, and severity of wildfires has increased due to changing climatic conditions, drought, hazardous fuel buildups, insect and disease infestations, nonnative invasive species, and other factors.

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Curiously, Tidwell’s list omits a contributing factor that is both perverse and comparatively controllable: Continued residential development at the edge of the fire zone, undertaken without nearly enough attention to minimizing the risks to property – and human life – in blazes that are growing both larger and more numerous as the years go by.

A new analysis of how homebuilding and land-use trends are driving fire risk and firefighting costs reached my desk this week, courtesy of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Montana, an outfit whose research I’ve discussed before.

It was published The Solutions Journal, which describes itself as “a hybrid peer-reviewed journal and popular magazine” that is “devoted to showcasing bold and innovative ideas for solving the world’s integrated ecological, social, and economic problems” (the founders include Paul Hawken).

We all pay the price

The paper is focused primarily on fire and land-use issues in the western U.S., but I think it should be of interest here as well, for at least three reasons.

  • We Minnesotans have our own issues with risky development in the wildland/urban interface, as we’re reminded whenever a big fire gets loose, say, at the edges of the northern canoe country.
  • Even as the Forest Service has embraced the virtues of fires as a force for ecological health, its efforts to let more of them burn have been blocked by a conflicting mandate to protect people’s lives and homes.
  • As federal taxpayers, we have very nearly the same stake as Coloradans or Montanans in policies that continue to provide a public subsidy of private recklessness in the fire zone.

“Wildfires have always been part of living in the American West,” the paper acknowledges, “but today they are bigger, burn longer, cause more damage, and kill more people than ever before.” 

Drawing on public data, the paper shows that the average wildfire has doubled both in size and duration in the last decade; since the 1990s, the average number of structures that burn each year has tripled.

Since the 1970s, the fire season has grown by two months (in California, in recent years, there has been no significant off-season). And by 2050, wildfire activity is expected to double again in the Southwest, Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain regions.

Much of this drama plays out on public lands of the West, where almost half of the land is managed by federal agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. From 2000 to 2013, 88 percent of wildfire acreage burned has occurred in the West.

The challenge of wildfires centers in large part on the need to defend homes on private lands that are at risk from fires that originate either on private lands or nearby public lands. …

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Even though land-use planning — the decision of where to allow the building of homes — is a local government responsibility, the cost of defending the homes from wildfires is often a state and federal burden. When a fire breaks out, regardless of where it started, land management agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management spring into action, sending ground crews, helicopters, and air tankers to battle the blaze. 

Sometimes the fires have catastrophic consequences that can’t be monetized. While Arizona’s Yarnell fire of June 2013, which killed 19 elite firefighters, is still fresh in many Americans’ memories, fewer may realize that 19 firefighters die every year, on average, up from 17 in the 1990s.

A pittance for prevention

On the prevention side, the heaviest investments have been in two types of programs: “fuels reduction” treatment, which attempts to reverse a century of excessive fire suppression through selective timber cutting and prescribed brush-clearing burns, and education programs aimed at landowners and their communities.

Federal estimates suggest that 230 million acres of federal land needs fuels reduction treatment because it’s at risk of serious ecological damage, with about one-third of that acreage at high risk. On average, though, there’s only enough money to treat 3 million acres year.

On the education side, the paper finds, fewer than 2 percent of the 70,000 communities at wildfire risk have been designated as “Firewise” under the program that teaches and supports various property-protection efforts, like removing brush within a safety perimeter and using flame-retardant building materials.

The paper offers a wide range of policy approaches that could begin to make a positive preventive difference in the fire zone, starting with an insistence that local communities begin to pay a larger share of the firefighting costs incurred on their behalf.

Better land-use planning might be achieved if financial and technical assistance could be provided in support of community decisions to be smarter about expanding into harm’s way. Open-space preservation through land and easement acquisition could create buffers with benefits beyond property protection.

But what about insurance, you ask – yet another way in which the many subsidize the few who build in bad places and can’t be bothered to take a Firewise course?

Insurance may not be the strongest tool for altering the pace and nature of development on undeveloped forest in areas. While homeowner premiums may be higher in these areas for some insurance companies and selected locations, reflecting the higher wildfire risk, it appears unlikely that they are high enough currently to be a deterrent to future development.

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Carole Walker of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association put the situation succinctly: “A homeowner’s insurance premium is the result of the decision to live in the Wildland-Urban Interface, but it is not the primary driver of that decision. A government-run, high-risk insurance fund would ultimately encourage, rather than discourage people to live in the WUI.”

It is doubtful that insurance rates will rise high enough in the near term to influence the redesign of a subdivision to direct future homes onto the safest areas, or prohibit home development on the most dangerous lands.

I think what this means is that through our insurance premiums, as well as our taxes, we’re going to continue to share in the cost when wildfire punishes recklessness, and the underwriters are OK with that.

And I ask again: Is this nuts or what?