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’ 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.
“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
[wpex more=”Click to read more…” less=”Collapse”]
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.