To fight fire, fight forest development

 

Spring is here, and the forest fire season will soon be upon us. Every year,the cost of fighting forest fires increases so that now, firefighting accounts for close to half the Forest Service's budget. The cost to tax payers has risen to the billions of dollars.

How do federal agencies handle this burden? The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management often end up raiding other programs in order to pay forfirefighting. Congress has started to address this issue, with the House of Representatives recently passing FLAME, acronym for the Federal Land Assistance and Management Act. It would create a separate account to fund fighting the most expensive wildland fires.  If it passes the Senate and becomes law, biologists and recreation managers will no longer have to fear for their budgets when large fires break out.

Unfortunately, FLAME does nothing to address one of the key reasons why forest fires have become so costly: the increasing number of homes built on private land near forested public lands.

So far, across the West, only 14 percent of the private land next to publicly owned forests has homes on it. But this relatively small percentageis tremendously expensive. If you add up the efforts of local areas, state and federal agencies, the cost to protect homes from forest fires exceeds $1billion per year. If 50 percent of the forested private lands were developed, the costs of firefighting could exceed $4 billion -- the size, almost, of the Forest Service's entire budget.

A recent economic case study illustrates the gravity of the problem. On average, protecting homes from forest fires in Montana costs $28 million annually. By the year 2025, unless Western states start placing some restrictions on home construction, the costs likely will rise to $40 million annually.

 Climate change has increased the costs even further. From past evidence, we know that a 1-degree increase in average summer time temperature is associated with a doubling of home-protection costs.  In Montana, with additional development and hotter summers, the estimated cost of protecting homes from forest fires could exceed $80 million by 2025.

That's a large bill for a state with less than a million people. But other states already are seeing much larger bills.  In California alone, for example, the costs of fire suppression in 2008 came to more than $1 billion.

Fire is a natural part of the landscape, and Western history shows that we will never succeed in banishing it from our forests. Federal and private property, logged and wilderness areas -- all varieties of lands have gone upin flames in recent years.

Given all this, the current approach to fire suppression fails badly, with the perverse incentives it has developed and its lack of public accountability.  People who develop in forested areas -- and the local governments that allow new subdivisions -- rarely if ever pay their fair share of the firefighting costs. Instead, the majority of firefighting expenses are paid by the Forest Service, BLM, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.  In other words, the national taxpayer picks up the tab.

Some communities have started to adopt "Firewise" protections that involve clearing defensible space and using fire-resistant building materials. This is an important step toward improving safety for homes on the 14 percent of private land near forests that is already developed. Reliance on such protections, however, could unintentionally encourage sprawl on the remaining 86 percent of land near public forests, particularly if it encourages the misguided notion that you can safely build anywhere.

Our current approach to paying firefighting costs is not sustainable. Now is the time to implement responsible, accountable steps that can help hold theline on future costs. Every year, federal agencies direct money to Western counties for various forms of fire-related assistance that could be used as an incentive for possible solutions. The stimulus bill, for example, included $250 million for the Forest Service to help counties with "wildland fire management" – a great opportunity for Westerners to develop better policies.

States could help counties by mapping "fire plains," applying lessons learned from regulating flood plains. Counties could -- and should -- be required to bear more of the costs of firefighting if their land-use plans permit development in fire-prone areas, and insurance rates could better reflect the risks of building homes in inappropriate places.

Unless we stop building homes in areas where homes were never meant to be, the costs of fighting forest fires will continue to escalate. And the bill will keep going to taxpayers.

Ray Rasker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of HighCountry News (hcn.org). He is the executive director of HeadwatersEconomics, an independent nonprofit research group in Bozeman, Montana.

Urban Interface Fires
Einar Jensen
Einar Jensen
May 05, 2009 01:04 PM
So, where exactly are homes meant to be? As an environmental historian, I'm at a loss to think of where human homes have existed on this continent from Day One or at least since the glaciers pulled out. As a wildland firefighter and life safety educator, I certainly appreciate the spirit of building smarter in our wildland urban interface areas; check out the collaborative efforts of the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District and San Diego County for true role models in developing homes that are ignition resistant. While the intent of this essay is good, the presentation seems a bit myopic and cliche. It's one thing to urge home construction to stop -- especially when the writer's Montana home is already built -- but to figure out where the next generations of Americans are going to live takes more effort. I have a feeling that Bozeman, like all of Colorado's Front Range below timberline, is entirely within the urban interface. Make sure you're not pointing your figure at others when it should be pointed at yourself.
Reply to Einar Jensen
rich fairbanks
rich fairbanks
May 05, 2009 11:42 PM
We have no responsibility to "figure out where the next generations of Americans are going to live." You cannot keep breeding endlessly. The fire versus suburb story is just a symptom. We are deconstructing the west's ecosystems with our endless 'growth.'
Fire and homes
Ray Rasker
Ray Rasker
May 05, 2009 01:21 PM
Some facts may help: only 14% of the wildland urban interface is currently built up with homes. The WUI is defined as being within 500 meters of forested public lands (i.e., not inside towns like Bozeman, but instead away from it, next to or inside the forested public lands). The per person consumption of land in that 14% of the WUI with homes is 3.2 acres/person, compared to 0.5 acres/person outside the WUI. One in five homes in the WUI are second homes. In other words, the existing WUI development is not exactly affordable land (we also took orchards, farms and ranchlands out of the definition of the WUI). If less of the WUI were developed in the future, there would still be plenty of land left for home development. Furthermore, no one is saying there shouldn't be development. All we're pointing to is the need for some degree of accountability for the consequences of where you build. Why should the rest of us subsidize a lifestyle that is expensive for the taxpayer and destructive to the environment?
Fire in the Wildland Urban Interface
Paul Rogers
Paul Rogers
May 08, 2009 11:26 AM
Thank you Ray, for writing this long overdue commentary. Now if we could just post it on the foreheads of every local decision-maker at the city-, county-, and state-levels. It is clear to me that the "firefighting" industry is more 'out of control' than the fires themselves. Two years ago we had a small fire on the edge of our northern Utah town and the feds brought the blank check to bear within hours - planes, helicopters, trucks, hoses, the works - making this the number one priority fire in the nation (for a total of about 6 hours!). Since the fire was near homes (and technically defined as WUI), we got the full show - believe me, people actually parked their cars, pulled out their lawn chairs, and sat watching the entertainment. The problem was, there was no real danger to the homes. There is no "forest" near those homes and most are surrounded by suburban lawns. The few bigtooth maples in the area did not exactly pose a threat by crown fire to life or property. Yet the the money rained down and we all got the feeling that the federal government was protecting us - and a warm feeling it was. The loser was the real forest about 1000 ft. elevation higher, that could really have used a fire.
fire insurance
Lee Anderson
Lee Anderson
May 05, 2009 02:58 PM
I've never understood why insurance doesn't cost more for UI homes. A 25-year-old man in a hot car in a major city pays more for auto insurance than I do ...
BUILDING HOME IN FIRE PRONE FOREST
Wes Thayer
Wes Thayer
May 06, 2009 01:02 AM
I'M AN OLD MAN AND FROM A FAMILY OF PIONEERS. WHEN MY FAMILY HOMESTEADED LAND IN FORESTED LAND THEY WERE INSTRUCTED TO CLEAR THE FOREST BACK AWAY FROM THE BUILDING SITE SUFFICIENTLY TO PROTECT THE BUILDINGS. WE ALWAYS KEPT THE FOREST BACK AND HAD PLANTING ROOM AND ROOM FOR OUR BUILDINGS. I'VE HELP FIGHT MANY FIRES AND CAN REALLY APPRICIATE THOSE WITH COMMEN SENSE VERSUS THOSE WITH NO SENSE AT ALL. THE HOME OWNER HAS THE FIRST RESPONSIBILITY TO PROTECT THE PROPERTY AND TO FIGHT THE POSSIBLE FIRE. IF HE CAN'T WIN THAT BATTLE THEN HE SHOULD PAY THE INSURANCE TO REBUILD. GEE WHAT DID YOUR FOREFATHERS DO?????
More on the WUI Challenge
Einar Jensen
Einar Jensen
May 12, 2009 01:24 PM
Mr. Rasker, What bothers me about your essay is your assumption that Bozeman and other towns/cities in the West's fire regimes have existed forever. At some point, all of Bozeman was within 1/4 mile of "the woods." Even if we accept the official designation of WUI lands, of which only 14% sport homes, it's naive to think that Wildland fires only impact that quarter mile of property. These fires have no regard for the official definition of what is within the Wildland Urban Interface Area.
     I agree that we WUI dwellers should shoulder more of the insurance burden when we fail to make our homes and properties ignition resistant. However, I believe the WUI challenge is like so many other issues we westerners face: It's an US challenge, not a THEM challenge.
To fight fire, fight forest development
Vivian Parker
Vivian Parker
May 19, 2009 03:12 PM
Thank you for the important contribution to the forest fire debate. Here in California, regulators regularly approve timber land conversions to permit building subdivisions. Timber giant Sierra Pacific Industries is also in the real estate business, converting its clearcut forest land into subdivisions. This company was also a huge beneficiary of the fraudulent home sales frenzy, supplying much of the framing lumber while turning 250,000 acres of California forests into 2 x 4s in the last decade.

A little publicized fact is that the majority of wildland fires in California are from human causes, primarily equipment fires--many times from logging equipment.

Timber companies, and the building industry, are also huge contributors to lawmakers and PACs--no surprise that their activities are subsidized locally and in Washington D.C.