“Facts are stubborn things,” as John Adams said, and a very stubborn thing over the last two decades has been how much we have spent on putting out forest fires. Not surprisingly, wildfire protection costs have risen substantially.
A recent paper from Headwaters Economics puts the federal annual-average fire suppression cost during the 1990s at slightly less than $1 billion per year, and the average cost since 2002 at more than $3 billion per year.
This tripling of firefighting costs is a result of longer fire seasons, higher temperatures and fuel build-up in the forests, all leading to more frequent and intense fires.
An arresting fact is that firefighting now accounts for nearly half of the U.S. Forest Service’s annual budget.
A huge problem for the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior is that they are the only agencies who must pay for natural disaster response out of their regular annual budgets. This being the case, these agencies found they had to “borrow” from other programs, such as fire prevention, to pay the costs of fire suppression.
This puts them in the position of having less money to prevent fires because they need more money to put them out. In the last two years, the Forest Service had to take more than a billion dollars from other programs to pay for fire suppression.
The good news is that lawmakers want to change this. A heavily supported bill, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, has been introduced this session in both the House and Senate, brought up by Sens. Wyden, D-Oreg., and Crapo, R-Idaho, and by Reps. Simpson, R-Idaho, and Schrader, D-Oreg.
The bill would allow the federal firefighting agencies to treat unusually large firefighting expenses as FEMA does for natural disasters. High suppression costs would be drawn from special disaster funding outside the Forest Service and Interior budgets, making sure ongoing programs such as forest management would not be raided in bad fire years.
This is one of the few times this Congress is likely to act with full bipartisan support and the strong support of the White House, made possible by support from almost every group that has anything to do with forests and rangelands.
But none of these federal-funding changes relieves property owners from our own responsibilities. We all hope this bill will allow for more consistent fuels treatments on the mountain. But even with more and better fuels work around us, we will still have fires. Some will be big, and what we do on our own properties is still crucial.
Scientists from the Rocky Mountain Research Station proposed a risk management model for fire protection in a recent study (Calkin et al. 2014). The authors emphasized the importance of the Home Ignition Zone.
Since most homes are destroyed in wildfire by embers contacting surface fuels touching the house, they argue that landscape projects that ignore the ignitability of homes will not prevent home loss in large fires.
They want policymakers to define the problem not as a wildfire-control problem, but as a home-ignition problem. In their words, “… mitigation of the HIZ is the most cost-effective investment for reducing home destruction …”
In other words, home fire abatement is the smartest thing we can do to keep our houses safe.