An air tanker drops retardant on the Little Horsethief Fire in Teton County in 2012 in an effort to control the blaze and protect homes. Headwaters Economics says unless there’s a change in the way forest-edge homes are developed, financed, insured and protected, the annual $3 billion federal firefighting bill will become intolerable. (Leine Stikkel — click to enlarge)

Protecting forest-edge homes from wildfires will become intolerably expensive unless western communities change the way they approve development, a Montana research group says.

Taxpayers subsidize irresponsible building when federal money is used to fight wildland fires, Headwaters Economics says in series of studies. Unless changes are made in the way homes are approved, sited, financed, insured and protected, the $3 billion national firefighting budget will erupt into an unsustainable burden, the group says.

Firefighters should and will continue to defend 46 million homes that are already built in 70,000 western communities on the edge of forests, Headwaters director Ray Rasker said. But 84 percent of the dangerous 64-million acre “wildland-urban interface” remains undeveloped and that’s where changes are needed.

“The nut of this problem is at the (local) level (where) land-use decisions are being made,” he said. “That’s where the solution ought to be focused.”

In Wyoming, 5 percent of the at-risk areas are developed with 5,900 homes, Headwaters’ research shows. Forty-three percent are second homes, the group says.

Headwaters lists 13 counties in the Equality State where it says better development rules could be adopted. The 10 that have the most potential for development in risky areas are, in order, Crook, Carbon, Teton, Converse, Albany, Weston, Uinta, Johnson, Park and Fremont.

Headwaters economic Map. County View of WUI Development (click to visit interactive map)

Headwaters’ studies show federal firefighting costs growing from $1 billion to $3 billion a year between the 1990s and the 2000s. Meantime, there’s relatively little cost to homeowners, bankers, insurance companies and local governments, all of who played a role in incurring firefighting expenses.

“The consequences of that (development) decision is borne by the rest of society, not the people who make the decision,” Rasker said. Yet few understand the issue. “I’m the guy in the back of the room raising my hand.”

That could change as Rasker takes his findings to Washington, D.C. this week where he will lobby federal lawmakers and agency personnel.

Headwaters’ pitch for change crystalized in Jackson in January at a private 20-person brainstorming session held over two days. A suite of reforms should include mapping of risky areas, reforming insurance and banking industries and shifting firefighting costs to the local level, Rasker said. Federal agencies like the Forest Service should warn local authorities of dangers looming over proposed subdivisions and clearly declare that structure protection is not the agency’s responsibility.

“I go to county commission meetings,” Rasker said, “I look at proposed new subdivisions. The question comes up about risk to life to safety. Nobody from the Forest Service is around.”

Even though federal firefighting policy states that structure protection is a local responsibility, Rasker said, “In practice, it doesn’t happen that way.”

Communities should seek input from federal firefighting experts who should plainly state “If you build there or in the pattern you are suggesting – we won’t defend those homes,” Rasker said. They should add, “If we are called to go in there, you will get a bill.”

Once put on formal notice, local governments would become responsible, Rasker said.

“If there’s a known risk and local government permits a subdivision anyway … then it’s a wanton violation of public safety,” he said. “That opens the door to lawsuits.”

A homeowner can say, “You knew this was a dangerous place, you permitted it anyway, now I’m going to sue you,” Rasker said. “That type of lawsuit is about to happen.”

However, there’s no universal definition of what a dangerous place is. “We don’t have consistent mapping of fire risk,” Rasker said.

In contrast, flood insurance is built on such a nationwide system operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “It’s done using the same methods across the country,” he said.

Once hazardous areas are certified, agencies and governments can promote safer developments while discouraging risky ones. Laws and regulations could tilt everything from mortgage rates to insurance premiums, property taxes, density allocations and preventive measures to favor safer development, Headwaters studies suggest.

The government will subsidize flood insurance rates for communities that take action to reduce the risk of flooding, Rasker said. In the case of fire, everybody assumes federal and state forces and money will rush to the rescue.

“The insurance just benefited because this risk was reduced by the federal taxpayer,” Rasker said. “The subsidy has been in place for so long people expect it.”

Fire, too, is an insignificant risk to large insurers, he said.

The Fourmile Canyon fire outside Boulder cost insurance companies $420 million, he said, while a hailstorm in the same area brought a $1.5 billion bill. Leaking washing machine hoses are a larger insurance threat nationwide than are wildfires.

Nevertheless, fire risk is growing with 60 percent of new homes built since 1990 being constructed in the wildland-urban interface. Fires themselves have doubled in size during the same periods.

They also burned twice as long during the 2,000s than they did in the ‘90s. Three times as many homes were lost per year in the later decade, compared to the earlier one.

“This could be a massive problem very soon,” Rasker said. “This is going to be a lot more — not $3 billion.”

The core issue of land use planning could be difficult to reform, especially in the West where private property rights often trump planning and zoning.

A forest home lin Teton County south of Wilson is located in a subdivision with only one access road, making firefighters wary of dangers should a wildfire erupt nearby. Headwaters Economics proposes that the way to hold down increasing firefighting costs is to regulate new development in risky areas. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile – click to enlarge)

“None of this is aimed at stopping development,” Rasker said. The question is, “Can we have smarter development?”

Republican and Tea-Party focus on fiscal responsibility could provide an opening. If local governments have to pay for the cost of firefighting, they would think twice about what types of developments they might approve.

“It may require federal legislation to transfer more responsibility to the local level,” Rasker said. Yet, “If you were a legislator, it’s hard to write legislation around this because you’re not making any friends.”

Headwaters’ studies also show that education and forest thinning have been, in general, ineffective. Of about 230 acres of high- and moderate-risk Forest Service land, only about 3 percent has been thinned near developments to reduce fire threats, Headwaters says.

Ironically, the very developments the Forest Service seeks to protect also prevent use of techniques, like prescribed burning, that could otherwise be employed to reduce fire threats.

Of the 70,000 communities at risk in the West, about 11 percent have wildfire plans and 10 percent fire-based development codes. Less than 2 percent participate in a highly touted “firewise” program that seeks to get homeowners to clean up their lots.

Headwaters could find no relationship between engagement in Firewise and a reduction in suppression costs. The group found this in a study it published in April titled “ An Empirical Investigation of the Effect of the Firewise Program on Wildfire Suppression Costs.”

Too much reliance on such programs might even promote risky development. People may feel safe but, “with a 40 mph wind, all bets are of,” Rasker said.

In some cases, it might be cheaper to buy private property and prevent development rather than shoulder the cost of fighting a nearby fire.

Rasker’s Jackson brainstorming group looked for low-hanging fruit and proposes shifting funds from federal fire prevention programs to land-use planning. A portion of the more than $1 billion spent annually on hazard reduction could instead provide consultants to help rural communities write smart development standards.

A Wyoming case study

 

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In a research paper, “Local Responses to Wildfire Risks and Costs,” Headwaters looked at eight western communities, including Teton County in Wyoming.

It found 42 square miles in the wildland-urban interface, 9 percent of which had been developed.

Fully 2,948 homes, 23 percent of the domiciles in the community are in the risk area. Thirty percent of those, or 888, are second homes, the study said.

“Past successes in keeping large fires from burning any structures has led to a sense of invulnerability and the perception that the rapid deployment of firefighting resources, including helicopters and planes, will stop future wildfires before they reach homes,” the study says. “The wealth of many residents, and their political influence, contributes to this sense of imperviousness.”

Insurance companies even reimbursed some homeowners for trees insured as landscaping. ”These payments created a strong disincentive to cut down trees, frustrating efforts to educate landowners on the benefits of fuel reduction and defensible space,” the study said.

Firefighters have labeled some developments with one entrance “suicide subdivisions,” where they will not fight significant blazes, the study said.

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Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. I am going to raise the possibility ( to me , a probability ) that conservatives of the Republican persuasion in Congress tacitly spur the Forest Service to cannibalize its own budget to keep up with wildfires. It’s their way of starving the agency to ” shrink government ” m; to keep the forest bureaucrats and regulators in check ; to ” manage” the agency by tightening the purse strings. It’s a perverse form of Congressional management by fiat . By not appropriating extra or emergency funds for the vital public service of wildfire control, it forces the agency to take money from other programs that Congressmen disapprove of but really do not want to be seen overtly meddling in. It achieves the same ideological defunding goal by doing exactly nothing…leaving to Forest Service to manage as best it can with fixed funds. Never mind that Congress routinely approves emergency funding for hurricanes , floods, and even droughts.

    Some of the funding crisis concerning wildfires is game playing by disingenuous Congressmen. My Shoshone Forest surrounding Cody has seen its funding drop over the years or get shifted internally to the point that the Forest Service can no longer do the basic chores of forest management…such as backcountry trail maintenance and keeping campsites open. Those shortfalls are a direct result of the Shoshone Forest being poorly funded . But to be fair , the FS spends far too much time doing desktop analyses instead of real outdoor work these days. An astounding amount of the Shoshone National Fores wilderness backcountry is all but inaccessible these days due to trails not being cleared…trails clogged with deadfalls from recent pine beetle killed trees. The Forest Service has no funding to even begin thinking about paying to do comprehensive trail work these days, like it did routinely in decades past with vigor. Today , it is rigor mortis.

    Finally, we have political ploys by the likes of Sen. John Barrasso who pushes legislation forcing the Forest Service to open more land for salvage logging, timber sales and the likes , but his deceitful legislation provides zero funding for those mandates. QED.

  2. Houses built with non-flammable materials within a fuel mitigated space usually don,t burn down. Fuel mitigated space need to be around house and the owners responsibility. Fires have become $ feeding troughs.

  3. There’s an ongoing debate in Congress regarding how to move firefighting expenses off the agency (USFS, BLM) budget (after a threshold is reached) and into a disaster budget, as Shannon Smith points out in her comment. Rasker addressed this in our interview and said the legislation doesn’t resolve the central issue he is underscoring. If fire funds came from a disaster budget, Rasker said, that alone wouldn’t reduce the increasing cost to taxpayers of fire fighting or eliminate the “subsidy” to those who live and build next to the forest.

  4. What is missing is a discussion of 100+ years of fire suppression. We have spent billions suppressing fire only to create an even bigger problem as the supply of fuel has grown exponentially.

    Communities have planning departments, building departments and design guidelines, we require inspections and all kinds of fancy cosmetic things that looks nice – but yet we still build in flood plans, we still ignore drainage issues, we mess with mother nature and suppress nature’s way of maintaining healthy forests. Its not so much that people build in the forest – and ignore good mitigation of the fire risk – but a forest system that is so overgrown with fuel that no amount of money or suppression will avoid the big fires we have seen recently.

    Government policies will not solve the issue, government policies including the Forest Service’s mismanagement of public lands is the problem.

  5. The Oil Creek Fire incinerated almost 100 square miles of Weston County timber and ranch land 2012. The communities of Newcastle and Osage were spared from the flames only by the grace of God and the combined efforts, heroic efforts, of local VFDs and ordinary citizens who grabbed shovels, dug in and got western with it.
    Neighbors helping neighbors.
    No one was injured.
    No homes were lost.
    Thank goodness nobody had to pay the ultimate price.
    Wonder what it’s going to cost?
    For those of you that haven’t heard the story:
    http://slf-web.state.wy.us/osli/boardmatters/2013/060613/Walk%20In-5.pdf

  6. Great reporting on a very important topic!

    There is another important aspect of this story that might be worth investigating: the Interior Bill establishing the budget for U.S. Forest Service also establishes funding for a host of other agencies (including our primary funding source, the NEH). As firefighting and mitigation costs are skyrocketing and congress is trying to keep the total Interior budget at a fixed level, legislators turn to proposing deep cuts in other agencies supported in the bill. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) and Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-OR) introduced a bill in February that would create an emergency funding process for fire response. For firefighting costs that exceed a specified percentage of the ten-year average, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2014 (H.R. 3992) would provide funding from outside the regular appropriations bills in a structure resembling that of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). If the measure were to pass, it would ease the pressure on the very lean funding available in the Interior bill by covering some of the firefighting costs through a separate channel. Given that this is an issue of particular importance to Wyoming, we have been in contact with Representative Cynthia Lummis’ office to ask her to sign on to the bill.

    How firefighting and mitigation costs are handled in the U.S. is a very important and fascinating story with far-reaching consequences. Again, great reporting by Wyofile!

    Shannon D. Smith
    Wyoming Humanities Council

  7. An important story to remind us that irresponsible building — in dense forest, in flood plains and on ridge lines — can end up costing billions of dollars in taxpayer money. It is a different kind of welfare but is something to think about when condemning much less costly medicaid expansion for the working poor.