Letters from the West

Study says firewise activities don't reduce costs of wildfires

Firefighters watch as the Elk Complex fire burns in Pine, ID on Monday afternoon August 12th, 2013.
Firefighters watch as the Elk Complex fire burns in Pine, ID on Monday afternoon August 12th, 2013. jjaszewski@idahostatesman.com

When homeowners take actions like clearing brush and firewood away from homes and replacing cedar shake roofs, they are making it easier and safer for firefighters.

But they aren't necessarily saving the federal government money on its burgeoning firefighting costs, a new study suggests.

The research, "An Empirical Investigation of the Effect of the Firewise Program on Wildfire Suppression Costs," was done by Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit environmental economics group headquartered in Bozeman, Mont. It has a bias that its study confirms, that the best way to reduce wildfire costs in the future is to keep housing and other development out of areas that are likely to burn.

Federal fire officials and scientists say wildfires in the West are growing in size, length and destructiveness, presenting greater risks to lives and property as well as the costs of suppression and recovery.

In the 1990s, the average cost of federal wildfire protection and suppression was less than $1 billion annually. Since 2002, the cost of federal wildfire protection and suppression has averaged more than $3 billion per year. The is no doubt that much of this money today goes to fighting fires in and around communities or heading toward communities or rural homes.

There also is little question that communities that institute firewise programs, such as Wilderness Ranch and the city of Boise, are easier to protect and safer for firefighters. But Headwaters goes a step further - based on its acknowledged limited database of 111 western wildfires.

Only 1 percent of the homes in Firewise Communities fell within six miles of wildfires.

Wildfires have entered official Firewise Communities fewer than five times. The average distance between a wildfire perimeter and the nearest Firewise Community within the researchers' sample was 3.3 miles.

Of the 10,842 western wildfires documented from 2000 to 2011, less than 10 percent of the perimeters overlap the boundaries of cities, towns, or census designated places, the researchers say.

Still, I'm skeptical because I have watched firefighters spend hours, days and even more than a week clearing brush, thinning trees and doing the work homeowners should have done themselves. These firefighters were working on our dime and perhaps we could call on fewer of them if the communities they arrive at to protect do the work ahead of time.

When I got to Ketchum last summer, HotShot crews were fixing people's sprinkler systems and moving their woodpiles away from their homes. I watched firefighters in Featherville cut down trees that were overhanging people's homes as they built a fire line to protect the town in 2012.

Headwater's point is that 84 percent of the land in the wildland urban interface is private and once developed, will increase firefighting costs. They say that even if these areas are developed as Firewise Communities, that won't reduce the costs of firefighting.

Maybe so. But it is unlikely that we are going to stop development in much of this area so the need for Firewise programs is going to rise, not drop.