The Rising Cost of Wildfires

Friday, July 05, 2013
(photo: NOAA)

The expense of fighting wildfires in the United States has tripled in the last decade, according to a new study.


An assessment by the nonpartisan Headwaters Economics found the annual cost of federal wildfire protection and suppression has averaged more than $3 billion per year since 2002.


During the 1990s, the cost was less than $1 billion annually.


The independent group noted in its report that the nation’s six worst fire seasons since 1960 have all occurred since 2000. However, federal appropriations for combating wildfires dropped in 2012 to their lowest level since 2000.


The recent increase in large wildfires was attributed to two factors. The first was “historic management practices” that have resulted in “overgrazing that reduced grass cover and encouraged seedling growth; logging of the large pines that led to a less fire-tolerant understory; and aggressive fire suppression that eliminated the natural, low-intensity fires which reduced biomass levels,” according to the study.


The other factor is “changing climatic conditions—higher temperatures, widespread drought, earlier snowmelt and spring growth, and expanded insect and disease infestations.”


The U.S. Forest Service now spends nearly half of its yearly budget on wildfire protection, the report says, and more than 10% of the entire budget of the Department of the Interior.


Federal fire protection expenses have gone up in part because of the more severe fire seasons. But it is also a result of allowing developers to build homes in and near forests and other wildlands that are at risk from wildfires.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

The Rising Cost of Wildfire Protection (summary) (Headwaters Economics)

The Rising Cost of Wildlife Protection (full report) (Headwaters Economics) (pdf)

Farmworkers Fired for Refusing to Work Amid Wildfires’ Smoke and Ash (by Ken Broder, AllGov)

Wildfires off to a Roaring Start This Year, while State Push for Rural Prevention Fee Cools (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)


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