Report: The Rising Cost of Wildfire Protection

Federal wildfire appropriations

Headwaters Economics has released a report titled “The Rising Cost of Wildfire Protection”, written by Ross Gorte, Ph.D., a retired Senior Policy Analyst with the Congressional Research Service. It is an effort to better understand and address why wildfires are becoming more severe and expensive and it describes how the protection of homes in the Wildland-Urban Interface has added to these costs.

Below are some excerpts:


Federal wildfire appropriations
Figure 1. Federal Wildfire Appropriations to the Forest Service and Department of the Interior, 1994 – 2012. Source, Headwaters Economics (click to enlarge)

Fuel Reduction on Federal Lands

Programs to protect the WUI also affect fuel reduction on other federal lands. First, the Healthy Forests Restoration Act directed that half of federal fuel reduction funds were to be used in the WUI. As a result, the proportion of fuel treatments in the WUI increased after FY2001 (the first year for which such data are available), from 37 percent (45% for the FS, 22% for DOI) to about 60 percent from FY2003 to FY2006 (73% for the FS, 42% for DOI), and 70 percent in FY2008 (83% for the FS, 47% for DOI).

More recent comparable data are not available, because the FS has modified the way fuel treatments are reported and has proposed shifting non-WUI fuel treatment funding to land and resource management accounts (instead of wildfire protection accounts).

This shift in fuel treatments to the WUI has two effects on federal fuel reduction efforts:

  1. It raises the average costs of reducing fuels on an acre of land. Treatments in the WUI are closer and more visible to humans and thus the public involvement process commonly takes longer and costs more. Mechanical treatments may require additional steps to reduce the visual impacts of removing biomass. Also, prescribed burning is, in many ways, the most effective means of reducing fuels, but the higher values and closer proximity of humans necessitate more personnel and more oversight to try to prevent the prescribed fires from becoming wildfires.23 One study found per-acre fuel reduction in the WUI costs 43 percent more for prescribed burning and nearly three times more for mechanical fuel reduction than in non-WUI areas.24
  2. It results in less fuel reduction on other lands. The level of fuel reduction over the past decade has remained relatively stable—averaging about 3 million acres annually according to the agency budget justifications. Because efforts are increasingly being focused on the WUI, the level of fuel reduction on non-WUI lands is probably declining. Furthermore, as discussed in more detail in other reports, 25 the 3 million-acre effort is insufficient to treat the 230 million acres of federal lands at high or moderate risk of ecological damage from wildfires in a timely manner. Thus, wildfire fuel levels are currently increasing, and shifting more fuel reduction to the WUI will exacerbate the current situation. This is likely to lead to more severe wildfire seasons in the future.


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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

2 thoughts on “Report: The Rising Cost of Wildfire Protection”

  1. great website, I am a Huntington Beach Fire Engineer retiring to Colorado in 1 year, I read a article within the last week or so about a insurance/urban interface conference in Denver later this summer, can you send me a link for that conference, I think your website posted the article about the conference, I maybe wrong, your website and the Daily Dispatch are all the fire websites that I look at anymore, keep up the good work!


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