True Costs of Fighting Wildfires in the Rocky Mountain West

[Article published at April 06, 2011]

Colorado was ablaze throughout March, with 27 wildfires erupting across the northern Front Range during the month. Unusually hot, dry conditions and gusty winds combined to make the beginning of spring an anomaly – the number of fires was nine times the 15-year average for March.

While state, county and federal agencies, including the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, work hard to extinguish Colorado wildfires and save homes and infrastructure close to forested public lands each year, their efforts contribute to an ironic national situation. The legacy of land managers working for over a century to suppress about 98 percent of the more than 70,000 wildfires that ignite across the country annually has created a climate where wildfires tend to be worse than they would be if more fires were left to burn out naturally, because of the buildup of deadwood and other fuels.

Historically, in the Rocky Mountains, frequent fires in low-lying ponderosa pine forests would thin out small trees and scour out dead material on the forest floor, ensuring large trees remained widely spaced, explained Bill Romme, professor of fire ecology at Colorado State University, in a telephone interview.

Even under extreme weather conditions fires would generally stay on the ground and likely not climb into the crowns of mature trees, protecting the forest from severe damage, he said.

In higher-elevation forests, fires that occurred once or twice a decade would clear out old trees and competing vegetation, allowing tracts of new forest to grow, he said.

By culling trees and shrubs on grasslands, wildfires can also promote the growth of native grasses. But human intervention has changed this dynamic. Land managers seldom allow fires to burn naturally, largely due to the need to protect homes in what’s known as the wildland-urban interface: the space where developed private land meets flammable wildland areas with a high potential for fire.

Suppressing wildfires is something that works in the short-term but in the long-term it’s not sustainable, said Romme.

“The longer you prevent fire in an ecosystem the more flammable material develops and the more intense, the more difficult to control the fire will be when it eventually comes,” he said.

Colorado experienced 4,289 wildfires in 2010, with 21 percent of these sparked by lightning and the rest started by humans, according to the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center’s annual report. Land managers allowed just 31 of these fires to take their natural course, while monitoring the blazes to make sure they didn’t threaten homes and infrastructure.

Some of the fires allowed to burn out naturally were small, between half an acre to five acres, said Steve Segin, public information officer for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center.

The way land managers approach wildfire management is informed by national policy, he said.

The inability of land managers to allow wildfires to burn out naturally in Colorado is not surprising. Amongst the states in the Rocky Mountain West, Colorado has the largest portion of developed forested private land bordering public wildlands – 21 percent – according to independent nonprofit research group Headwaters Economics. New Mexico ranks second to Colorado in terms of wildland-urban interface development, with 17 percent of its interface area occupied by housing. Nine percent of Montana’s wildland-urban interface is developed, while Wyoming is least developed at just four percent.

More Houses in Interface Zones Hurts Taxpayers?

While the aesthetic benefits of living on the border of pristine forests cannot be denied, an increase in the number of houses close to combustible trees winds up costing taxpayers when wildfires strike.

Using Montana as a case study, Headwaters Economics found that protecting an average home from a wildfire costs roughly $8,000. Statewide, the cost of protecting homes from forest fires averages $28 million annually. Protecting homes in the wildland-urban interface from fires accounts for close to a third of firefighting costs in Montana, according to the researchers.

Only 4 percent of homes in the West are built in the fire-prone wildland-urban interface and one in five of these are second homes, said Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics.

Essentially, this means a handful of people benefit from taxpayer dollars to protect their homes from fires, since the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Federal Emergency Management Agency and state agencies bear most of the costs for firefighting in interface regions, he explained.

Combating wildfires is not a frugal affair. Together the Forest Service and Department of the Interior received $3.5 billion in federal funds to manage wildfires in 2010. Of this, $2.5 billion went to the Forest Service, amounting for just less than half the agency’s total budget.

The way Rasker sees it, there’s little incentive for people not to build in fire-prone areas.

If county commissioners had to pay for their share of firefighting costs they’d be more inclined to tell developers to redesign subdivisions, build homes further away from high-risk areas, cluster homes together, or do fuel treatment before building, he said.

“If there’s anything that motivates the behavior of county government, it’s their budget,” he said.

At the same time, wildfires are not a big issue for insurance companies, which benefit from “free firefighting services” for the homes they’re insuring. This means homeowners are not personally responsible for the true cost of living in these fire-prone areas, he explained.

The total insurance claims for the Fourmile Canyon fire that decimated 169 homes in Boulder County, Colorado, last September amounted to $217 million, making it the costliest wildfire in Colorado history. Rasker compared this to Colorado’s worst hail storm, which hit the Denver Metro area in July 1990 and cost insurers over a $1 billion in current dollar terms.

Water damage to drywalls from leaking washing machine hoses is a bigger expense for insurance companies than wildfires, Rasker said.

One of Rasker’s major concerns is that the cost of fighting wildfires increases when temperatures are hotter, so climate change could result in heftier costs in future.

In a detailed analysis of daily fire suppression costs for 18 large fires in Montana during 2006 and 2007, Rasker found that when it was 1 degree warmer on average during summer the cost of protecting homes from fire doubled.

Based on Montana’s current development rates, Rasker calculates that with no controls over future home building the cost to protect homes from wildfire in Montana could grow from $28 million per year to $40 million per year by 2025. If climate change leads to an average increase of 1-degree in summer months, these costs could hit $84 million per year by 2025, he said.

Across the West only 14 percent of the wildland-urban interface is developed, which leaves a lot of room for future development, said Rasker.

In a 2009 report, Rasker identifies 10 possible solutions to curb the federal costs of fighting fires on the wildland-urban interface in the West. These include limiting development with local zoning ordinances and cutting federal firefighting budgets in order to shift more of the cost of wildland firefighting to local governments.

“We’re not telling people that they shouldn’t live where they want,” said Rasker. “What we’re saying is that the cost accountability simply isn’t there right now.”


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