Protecting homes and people from wildfires is expensive. Even more costly are the recovery efforts following the wildfire, which include road repairs, landscape rehabilitation, home and property restoration and infrastructure rebuilding. Many of these secondary impacts take months or years to fully manifest and add millions of dollars to the overall costs of a wildfire.
Although the federal government pays for a bulk of immediate suppression costs, or money spent on firefighting, nearly half of all other short- and long-term damages from wildfires are incurred at the local level.
Wildfires are getting bigger, burning longer, and more people are building in areas with known wildfire history. In 2017, suppressions costs set a new record by totaling nearly $3 billion — more than six times the average amount spent on suppression activities during the 1990s.
However, suppression costs average less than 10 percent of overall wildfire costs. While the high price of wildfire suppression is widely publicized, many other short- and long-term impacts and related costs often go unrecognized.
A recent analysis by Headwaters Economics assessed five historic wildfires for impacts and accounted costs and found that nearly half of all wildfire costs are paid by local cities and counties, individual homeowners, businesses and non-governmental organizations.
Most of the wildfire costs accrued at the local level are the result of long-term damages to natural resources, real estate, tourism and recreation and local government services.
It can take years for some communities impacted by wildfires to financially rebound— and much longer for the emotional and psychological wounds to heal.
As wildfires become larger and more expensive, the time is now to plan and anticipate future risk. Planning new communities and developments with consideration of wildfire risk is one way to accommodate growth and reduce costs from wildfire impacts. By integrating common land use planning practices into the development process, communities can design homes and neighborhoods to live alongside wildfire rather than being destroyed by it.
For instance, the prudent placement and layout of roads, infrastructure and services can reduce wildfire risks to homes and improve evacuation and response efforts.
Similarly, requiring ignition-resistant building materials in the construction and design of homes in high-risk areas can reduce wildfire impacts. Adding as little as 2 percent to the overall costs of new home construction, ignition-resistant features can reduce vulnerability to embers while also enhancing a structure’s durability and energy efficiency.
Land use planning strategies can complement other mitigation measures such as vegetation treatment and forest management. In Flagstaff, Ariz., — a city of 70,000 people living amidst one of the world’s largest contiguous ponderosa pine forests — a Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Code requires all homeowners to manage vegetation within their property. The mandatory defensible space reduces the build-up of fuels and other combustible materials.
Similarly, in Santa Fe, N.M. an overlay zone is applied to manage vegetation within the city’s escarpment area. While originally intended to protect viewsheds, the overlay zone also reduces wildfire risk by ensuring the use of fire-tolerant plants and defensible space around homes.
Wildfires are becoming a way of life for many in the West. With more people building in high-risk areas, wildfires are causing more damage, deaths, and impacts than ever before. As a result, the costs associated with responding to and recovering from wildfires are also increasing.
By realizing that local communities bear the brunt of wildfire costs, elected officials and decisionmakers can start planning now to avert a potential disaster in the future.
Kimiko Barrett works at Headwaters Economics, an independent research group based in Bozeman, Mont., and has a doctorate in forestry and conservation sciences from the University of Montana.