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Wildfires, tax breaks don’t mix

Tue., Aug. 28, 2007

The West is in the middle of another devastating fire season, with flames threatening posh communities like Sun Valley and smoke filling the valleys of Montana. So far, knock on perilously dry wood, Washington has been spared the worst of it.

The fires have consumed millions of acres of forest and grassland. Fighting them has cost $1 billion and counting.

The expenses are another burden for the U.S. Forest Service and other federal, state and local government agencies that can scarcely afford to burn money. Yet an increasing share of the available funds has been dedicated to saving homes built in or near woodlands by owners who want to enjoy mountain living. Meanwhile, flames destroy taxpayer-owned forests.

For a wrong-headed solution to this problem, it would be hard to top one floated by Montana Sen. Max Baucus. As he toured the charred state during the August recess, Baucus suggested federal tax incentives be available to homeowners who take measures that make their property less fire-prone.

Huh? Isn’t this what insurance is for? Why should taxpayers subsidize irresponsible property owners, many using their rural retreats as second or third homes?

The most egregious example of high living in the high country is in Baucus’ own backyard. The Yellowstone Club features homes costing not millions, but tens of millions of dollars. Those folks don’t need a tax break. Sunblock, maybe.

The insurance industry, regulators and the agencies who respond to fires have tried for years to get consumers to do the right thing – clearing defensible green zones around homes, widening roads to accommodate fire trucks, and following building codes that minimize flammability. Too few pay heed.

The Firewise program was created after huge fires that swept Yellowstone National Park in 1988. The coalition of federal and state agencies offers communities guidance on best fire prevention practices and recognizes communities that take the necessary steps. River Bluff Estates in Spokane and Cave Bay and Conkling Park in Worley have been among the 245 areas to get Firewise recognition.

“There is a misconception there is nothing we can do in the face of a fire,” says spokeswoman Judith Leraas Cook.

Fireproofing takes only a few simple measures and a few days a year, says Leraas Cook, who says her area on Orcas Island is also among those with a Firewise blessing.

Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, says the industry has tightened its underwriting standards, at the same time offering workshops that explain how to mitigate wildfire risk. Only a few people attend.

Meanwhile, bigger, more permanent structures supplant seasonal cabins, raising the costs of a disaster “exponentially,” Walker says.

Government intervention distorts the market, unfairly spreading the cost of fighting fires onto taxpayers who in no way benefit. Like federal flood insurance that has encouraged wiped-out homeowners to repeatedly rebuild in flood plains, or on barrier islands lashed by hurricanes, it will only encourage bad behavior.

“What makes sense? What makes fair sense?” Walker asks.

The flood insurance program, by the way, is $20 billion in the hole.

Baucus, who has also proposed a trust fund to stabilize firefighting costs, is not the only member of Congress backing measures that may be well-meaning but risk passing to taxpayers the bill for landowners’ negligence. With every disaster, from hurricanes to tornadoes to earthquakes, the pressure increases for relief of some kind.

Tax incentives are an exceptionally bad idea. Unfortunately, Baucus, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, is in a position to make his proposal happen. Better it should go in the burn barrel.

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