Wildfires cost American taxpayers billions of dollars every year. Yet much of the cost is underestimated or under-reported. And these costs will continue to increase if we don’t reduce wildfire hazards.
These are the messages of an international position statement from the world’s leading professional wildland fire organizations: the Association for Fire Ecology, the International Association of Wildland Fire and The Nature Conservancy.
We’re accustomed to beginning each fire season with a threat assessment and closing with reports on the season’s price tag. While the threats and costs have risen, reported costs are only a fraction of the total cost of wildfires, and typically only reflect the fire suppression budget. Additional and indirect costs, such as impacts on local economies and human health, erosion, loss of private property values and more, are not part of year-end statistics. These additional costs can be two to 32 times the cost of suppression and can accrue up to a decade after a wildfire. And the true cost would be even higher if we added the impact of fire on ecosystem services.
A pertinent example is California’s Rim Fire of 2013, which cost a reported $127 million for direct suppression and recovery efforts. Yet the total cost over time is projected to be $1.8 billion — or 13 times more than the reported costs.
To reduce costs we must reduce the social, environmental and economic damage of wildfires while still benefiting from the role fire plays in maintaining ecosystem health. To some, the logical solution would be to suppress all fires – therefore avoiding these damages. As a country, we tried that and failed. The paradox of full fire suppression is that it leads to fuel load build-up, and more damaging and costly fires. Success in one fire season compounds risk for the next.
What is needed is a unified effort to reduce fire intensity and severity through fuels management, targeted to protect high-risk communities and landscapes. Unfortunately, a number of legislative, budgetary and social constraints stand in the way of such fuel management.
For one, wildfire hazard mitigation is treated differently than any other high-cost, high-risk natural disaster. State and federal legislators regularly allocate billions of dollars to retrofit infrastructures against damage from earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and floods – and these funds are spent at an economic loss, given the importance of protecting human lives and property, and reducing the price tag of post-incident recovery.
In contrast, fuels management treatments are typically implemented only if they are economically viable. Fuels management costs are expected to be offset by profit from extracted biomass and timber products. If those products are not economically viable, the treatment doesn’t go forward and the hazard increases over time. In some cases, in an attempt to make a fuel treatment economically viable, environmental compromises are proposed (more roads, removal of larger trees, etc.) that only end up inflaming opposition to the treatment.
Quite simply, investment in wildfire hazard mitigation needs to be increased and maintained for the long-term, with an approach that matches our investments in preparing for other natural disasters. The proposed Wildfire Disaster Funding Act now in the US Congress would use funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for overruns of wildfire suppression budgets, and help free up U.S. departments of Agriculture and the Interior funds for forest management. But this only addresses reactive wildfire suppression costs and does not guarantee that funding for proactive fuels management or forest restoration projects will be available or free of economic viability litmus tests.
The current pace of investment is barely enough to maintain areas already under fuels management programs. Without specific investments in fuels management, these hazards and the long-term costs of wildfires will increase. We will pay more to manage wildfire disasters, restore fire-impacted landscapes and support community redevelopment. In some cases, post-fire recovery will not be possible.
We can pay our dollars later, to fight fires and recover from the aftermath. It’s far wiser to invest our dollars now towards fuels management, resilient forests and community wildfire preparedness.
Read the position statement at: http://fireecologyjournal.org/reduce-wildfire-risks/.