The “hidden” costs of wildfire — and who gets stuck with the tab
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2013
Recent wildfire seasons have provided mainstream media with plenty of material for dramatic images and attention-grabbing headlines, some more accurate than others. We often worry that misleading coverage can deliver the wrong message to the public, but it can also be a problem among wildfire professionals. Lately, I’ve had to re-evaluate my own methods of understanding wildfire news and where it comes from, as well as how I transmit that information to colleagues and the public.
Molly Mowery, the program manager for Fire Adapted Communities, explains why the cost of wildfires are dramatically more than initial estimates.
Every year, the USDA Forest Service spends an extraordinary amount of money fighting wildfires. The budget for these activities in 2012 was nearly $2 billion dollars, the bulk of which went to fire suppression costs — aviation, engines, firefighting crews, agency personnel, and more — to protect threatened communities, people, and property. The federal government will soon announce its 2013 budget for wildfire management activities, and there is no reason to think that the price tag will be any less than it was last year.
One of the problems associated with this very large number is that it’s often interpreted as the “cost” of wildfire, when in fact it’s more like the tip of the iceberg of what wildfire actually costs. Focusing solely on suppression costs can blind us to a long list of additional direct, indirect, and associated costs, including damages to utilities and other facilities, timber and agricultural losses, evacuation aid to displaced residents, long-term rehabilitation costs to watersheds and other affected areas, post-fire flooding mitigation and damage, business revenue and property tax losses, public health impacts from smoke, and, in some cases, the tragic loss of human life. Costs such as private property losses are often included in media coverage of fires, but even these figures can hide associated costs that are buried in the details or are difficult to calculate.
Many of these unacknowledged costs are assumed by states and local communities, and continue long after the immediate impact of a wildfire. A 2009 report released by the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition looked at six different wildfire case studies between 2000 and 2003, and found that total expenses were anywhere from two to 30 times greater than the reported suppression costs. New Mexico’s Cerro Grande Fire in 2000, for example, destroyed 260 residences and caused extensive damage to the area’s cultural sites and utility infrastructure, and to equipment at the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory. While the suppression bill was $33.5 million, estimates of the total cost, including immediate repairs, short-term rehabilitation, and long-term restoration, exceeded $970 million.
Another example is Colorado’s 2002 Hayman Fire, which burned nearly 138,000 acres (55,847 hectares) and destroyed hundreds of residences and outbuildings. Total suppression expenses were more than $42 million, but direct costs of property losses, utility losses, and Forest Service facility and resource losses brought the bill to more than $135 million. Adding other rehabilitation expenses, including tax revenue and business losses, reduced value of surviving structures, and other special costs such as losses to wilderness scenery, boosted the total to $207 million.
Research conducted by the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center (wildfirelessons.net) finds that more comprehensive reporting is required to capture the full extent of wildfire’s economic impact. (The center offers a “cost-plus-loss” checklist of 11 categories to account for these long-term community impacts.) This type of reporting should also be factored into budgeting and planning at all levels of government. If community leaders were more aware of these impacts, there would be a compelling argument to invest in up-front mitigation solutions that increase resilience to wildfire disasters.
In an era that strives to be more fiscally responsible, decision makers must understand that costly wildfire disasters and long-term budget draining recoveries can be pre-empted by effective planning and pre-fire measures.
Molly Mowery is program manager for Fire Adapted Communities and International Outreach.