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Fighting the next wildfire

Published July 7, 2013 5:17 pm

• Bloomberg News
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The families of the 19 elite firefighters killed June 30 in a forest fire outside Yarnell, Ariz., deserve more than just our gratitude and condolences. Their memory should prompt governments at all levels to remedy their failure to deal with the growing threat of these disasters.

Reducing the cost of future fires, in lives and property, requires understanding what got us here in the first place. Yes, climate change has led to drier conditions and more fires: More than 9 million acres burned in 2012, an area bigger than New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware combined and almost twice the annual average since 1990.

But even if the world weren't getting hotter, the dangers from cataclysmic fires in the American West would be rising. The number of homes built in the "wildland-urban interface" grew by 6.6 million from 2000 to 2010, an increase of 18 percent.

The combination of more fires and more houses near wildlands has put more property at risk. Last year, the federal government spent $1.9 billion fighting forest fires, more than four times the annual average during the 1990s. Then there are the costs that can't be calculated: From 2002 to 2012, 192 firefighters died trying to suppress wildland blazes. Including Yarnell, 24 more died in the first six months of this year.

The costs of firefighting are inhibiting prevention. In 1991, fighting fires made up 13 percent of the U.S. Forest Service's total budget. By 2012, it increased to more than 40 percent, cannibalizing programs designed to mitigate fires in the first place.

Prevention strategies also fall short outside the forest at the local level. The mix of policies — zoning, building codes and planning — to get homeowners to adopt practices to prevent losses from fire aren't popular. As of 2009, the latest year for which figures are available, only 25 states required local governments to create land-use plans, and only 11 addressed natural hazards such as forest fires in their statewide plans. In 12 states, the government suggests but doesn't specify what local standards should address. In three states, including Texas, officials don't even do that much.

When the Forest Service fights fires on its land, it also works to protect property in neighboring jurisdictions, then asks those jurisdictions to pay part of the bill. One would think that this would push states and communities to impose tougher rules on developers and residents. The trouble is, states can simply resist paying their tabs. Fourteen states owe the Forest Service $205 million for firefighting costs, with Texas owing the bulk of it: $185 million, most of it dating to 2011.

Washington resists playing debt collector after states and towns are devastated by fires. But sheltering those states from the cost of their development decisions amounts to an implicit federal subsidy for communities that allow excessive development at the forest's edge and disregard best practices in land planning.