The West’s upcoming wildfire season holds the high risk of again being long, expensive and dangerous, with an acceleration of alarming trends that include more and bigger fires, and increased dangers and costs associated with the need to defend private homes. Unfortunately, what we have tried so far is not adequate to prepare for these developments.
Already, wildland firefighting costs the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management an average of $3 billion per year, triple the amount from a decade ago. At least one-third of the bill goes to defend private homes. In the past 10 years, the acres burned per fire doubled and the average fire burns twice as long. Since 2010, the number of structures destroyed tripled and firefighter fatalities rose fourfold.
These trends will worsen because of climate change and continued homebuilding on fire-prone lands. The fire season is on average two months longer than in the 1970s. In Montana, recent records show a 1 degree Fahrenheit increase in summer temperatures more than doubles both the area burned and the cost to defend homes.
In addition, the housing market is picking up again, putting more people in harm’s way and driving up firefighting costs. In Spokane County, for example, 65 percent of the Wildland-Urban Interface – the private lands adjacent to forested federal lands – is not yet developed.
The two most common approaches to reduce wildfire-related dangers and costs show that we still have a long way to go. One attempt, like the popular Firewise program, is voluntary landowner education to increase the survivability of homes by clearing brush and nearby trees, creating defensible space, and using nonflammable building materials.
This is the right approach on land already developed; yet only 2 percent of at-risk communities have adopted this tactic. Moreover, a recent study by Headwaters Economics found no relationship between Firewise participation and reduced wildfire suppression cost.
Another option is to reduce fuel loads in the forest. The Forest Service estimates about 230 million acres need treatment, but each year less than 3 million acres are thinned through logging or prescribed burning.
Now is the time to add a third idea that would improve local land-use planning and bring a level of cost accountability to the local governments that permit new homes and subdivisions. Today, national taxpayers fund much of the cost to suppress wildfires, and local governments do not face a financial risk when permitting homes on dangerous, fire-prone lands.
The solution therefore should encompass both stick and carrot. First, bill local governments for their share of the firefighting costs to create a strong incentive for better planning. Second, provide land-use planning help, but performance-based, allocated in proportion to the community’s ability to reduce wildfire risks.
These ideas do not mean a halt to homebuilding. Rather, they point to smarter development. For instance, we can reward homebuilders with higher density development rights if they cluster homes away from danger, behind a firebreak and close to a water source.
Redirecting a substantial portion of the Forest Service’s $4.7 billion budget to risk prevention, including financial and technical assistance in land-use planning, would be welcome in understaffed rural communities. Also essential would be mapping to clearly identify areas most at risk from wildfire to alert people before they build. In select instances, it may even be cheaper to buy development rights from willing sellers to prevent further development.
Across the West today, 84 percent of the Wildland-Urban Interface – the private lands adjacent to forested federal lands – is not yet developed. By managing the pace, scale and pattern of future development, and directing it away from the most dangerous and expensive places, we have the opportunity to better live with fire.