The Economic Wisdom of Fighting Wildfires

Fire mitigation treatment efforts in our forests and rangeland are a proven strategy to reduce the intensity, destruction, and cost of wildfires. A recent report by the...
By Kolby Hoagland | May 16, 2014

The images and stories currently emerging from the San Diego area remind us of the precarious nature of human development on the wild-urban interface (WUI) in the western U.S. The loss of life, property, and the exorbitant cost associated with wildfires begs for better solutions from our policy makers and regional planners. Simply waiting to fight wildfires once they have ignited cannot be the primary solution in wildfire management. This week’s blog continues along a common theme in DataPoints, mitigating the cost and destruction of wildfires with forest thinning and restoration efforts.

San Diego Fire

Last year the Rim Fire in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of eastern California burned nearly 257,000 acres, ringing in at a total cost of $127 million. The Yarnell Fire, also from last year but in Arizona, took the lives of 19 firefighters from the Granite Mountain Hotshots and ultimately burned 8,400 acres of forest, destroying 129 structures in the process. The Hayman Fire in 2002 burned 138,000 acres of central Colorado pine forest and came at a cost of $238 million in suppression, destruction, and cleanup. None the above assessments accounts for the costs associated with the loss of economic production from businesses in the areas, such as tourism and displaced employees. With the cost and destruction of wildfires only predicted to increase, alternatives that reduce the destruction and intensity of fires must be pursued by policy makers and western regional planner if we hope to maximize bioenergy production, rural economic development, and minimize the numerous reprecussions that come from wildfires.

Fire mitigation treatment efforts in our forests and rangeland are a proven strategy that reduce the intensity, destruction, and cost of wildfires.  A recent report by the Nature Conservancy, Sierra Nevada Conservancy, and the U.S. Forest Service further details the wisdom behind treating a threatened area rather than leaving the forest as it is to burn. Focusing in on the Mokelumne Watershed, the report calculates the avoided cost of a wildfire in the watershed with treated and non-treated scenarios.  The report (executive summary) not only tabulates the cost of wildfire in the watershed but also the financial benefit that thinning operations would generate in the local economy. Specific to bioenergy production, the report notes that the forest treatment plans in the Mokelumne Watershed would generate an estimated 175,000-193,000 BDT of biomass per year for up to thirty years for use as fuel, which is a sufficient supply for a 22 MW facility. Along with bioenergy development, the overall estimated economic impact to the Mokelumne Watershed economy in terms of savings and new revenue from treatment measures is between $126.4 and $224.3 million over a 30 year period.

The Mokelumne Watershed Avoided Cost Analysis (full report) analyzes fire in a specific forest landscape and cannot be applied directly to other threatened regions and forests. The analysis does, however, create a context and clear argument for preemptive treatment of threatened forests. The loss of lives and a region’s economy can easily go up in smoke from a wildfire, as we are currently observing in the San Diego area. Preemptive forest treatments are the only option if we hope to reduce the destruction and cost of wildfires. The difficulty is that the initial investment and scale of treatment efforts must be grand for effective impacts to be realized. Policy makers and regional planners must reside on the principal that the long-term cost savings and economic stimulus of fire mitigation efforts far exceed the near-term costs of the treatment. Pilot-scale efforts would equate to throwing a cup of water on a house fire. We must pursue a broad effort on the watershed-scale if we hope to realize measurable outcomes in western forests.