The Hidden Costs of Wildfire Management

Aug 3, 2015

Battling wildfire is not cheap and there’s little incentive to lower costs by changing how wildfires are managed. That’s the conclusion of WSU economist and professor Jonathan Yoder.

In a recent paper published in the Journal of Forestry, he and co-author Dean Lueck of the University of Arizona reported that part of the problem comes from inefficiencies in fighting fires. Those include the practice of dropping fire suppressant from the air – something which costs a lot of money but isn’t very effective.

Another issue is that elected officials are hesitant to allow emergency response funds to run out.

“The reality is, it’s bad politics to limit resources for fighting a fire just because of budget constraints,” Yoder said. “So agencies often go over budget, and they know they effectively have a blank check.”

People are also building more houses near forest lands, and they have little reason to reduce their wildfire risk thanks to public firefighting services and the fact that most insurance plans cover loss from wildfires.

That makes it tricky for wildfire management experts, who often have to decide whether to save isolated homes or manage large areas of unpopulated forest to reduce overall wildfire risk. There are some incentives for homeowners to help prevent fires. Some insurance companies, for example, offer lower premiums to homeowners who remove vegetation near their houses.

According to the New York Times, the Obama administration is working to shift large wildfire suppression from the U.S. Forest Service to FEMA.

“That would allow the Forest Service to invest more in reducing fire risks, while letting FEMA emergency funds pay for fighting the largest, most expensive fires,” Yoder said.