Wildfire costs rising
There's an old saying that "Floods are acts of God. Flood damage is an act of man." That is, we mortals don't control rainfall, but we can decide not to build in flood plains.
A similar argument might apply to wildfires, according to a recent report from Headwaters Economics, which describes itself as an "independent, nonprofit research group" based in Bozeman, Mont.
This summer could be a busy one for firefighters, as the West has been drier than average in 2010. And firefighting costs have been climbing anyway, the report says; the federal government now spends about $3 billion a year on wildfires, double the amount in 2000.
Why the big cost increase? The report cites three factors: wood, weather, and WUI -- the Wildland-Urban Interface. Wood is a result of forest management practices that allow fuel to accumulate. Weather is a hotter, drier climate. And the WUI zone is an increasingly attractive place to build homes, which means there's more property to be protected from wildfires.
Such developments benefit from "perverse incentives" and a lack of accountability: "People who develop in forested areas, and local governments that allow such new subdivisions, do not pay their share of fire fighting costs. The majority of firefighting expenses instead are paid by the Forest Service, BLM, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency."
The study does not point out an obvious conclusion: Poor folks who live in trailer parks in town are subsidizing rich folks on their next-to-federal-land acreages. The study does mention the human costs -- an average of 21 deaths of wildfire fighters each year -- which raises the issue of blue-collar kids dying to protect trophy homes.
The Headwaters Economics paper does examine suggestions for reducing the risk, such as allowing insurance companies to charge higher rates for fire-prone areas, eliminating the mortgage-interest deduction for such dwellings, and better local zoning. There's even a suggestion along the liens of my "Stupid Zone" proposal -- better mapping of hazardous areas, and more education about the financial consequences.
If you live where wildfires are a possibility, it might be a good idea to make sure your county commissioners get a copy of this report -- deterring development in the WUI is one way to save tax money.