Most of the money spent in Idaho last year to fight wildfires went to protecting communities such as Featherville, Sunbeam, Stanley and Idaho City.
And every scientific look at the future of wildfires in Idaho and the West predicts larger fires and longer seasons as summers become hotter and drier.
Add to that the continued construction of homes and cabins in the forests, and the costs of firefighting will continue to go up.
Protection of private property accounts for between 50 percent and 95 percent of all firefighting costs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Inspector General reported.
A new study by the Montana environmental group Headwaters Economics shows that 84 percent of private lands near public forests in the West are undeveloped. This means that during the next 50 years, the costs of firefighting could explode because of development, even if we turned every possible public forest into a managed plantation.
"The fundamental challenge is that those who permit and build homes on fire-prone lands - county commissioners, developers and homeowners - do not bear their proportional cost of defending these homes from wildfires," said Ray Rasker, chief economist of the Bozeman, Mont., group.
In Idaho, the greatest potential for more second homes is up north in Shoshone and Clearwater counties. Already the areas around Coeur d'Alene, Sandpoint and Bonners Ferry have become Meccas of second-home development.
Valley and Boise counties, which Headwaters ranks as 9th and 11th in potential for forest development in Idaho, have had their share of big fires. Forest scientists say this area will continue to burn regularly, largely because it gets so many lightning strikes compared to other forests.
In 2012, the federal and state governments paid an estimated $220 million to fight fires in Idaho. Most of this was spent in southern Idaho; more than $120 million went to the Boise National Forest and Salmon-Challis National Forest.
National wildfire-fighting costs have averaged $1.8 billion annually for the past five years. The 2012 fire season was among the worst on record for many regions and states, totaling more than $2 billion.
The Headwaters Economics study found that just 16 percent of available private land in Western forests is developed. If people build homes and cabins on just half of the remaining lands, Headwaters Economics predicts, annual firefighting costs could grow to between $2.3 billion and $4.3 billion.
Headwaters released its study to encourage states and local governments to zone these areas like flood plains are zoned - as undeveloped buffers to protect humans and structures from the ravages of fickle Mother Nature. The group wants to discourage development of what are primarily vacation homes that end up being subsidized by all taxpayers.
"We would see a much different pattern of development in the West if the federal government shifted the financial responsibility of defending homes to local governments and those who build homes on fire-prone lands," Rasker said.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484