Experts say that to keep homes out of dangerous fire zones, the high costs of wildfires must shift away from the federal government to local government and homeowners.
Recent wildfires, like the 2010 Fourmile Canyon fire, have cost hundreds of millions in damages. According to Boulder County records, Fourmile Canyon claimed 169 homes, burned 6,200 acres and cost $224 million, including $73.6 million in property damage. The federal government paid most of the bill, with the Federal Emergency Management Agency covering 75 percent of Colorado’s firefighting costs for Fourmile Canyon. Ray Rasker, Director of Headwaters Economics, a non-profit research group supporting improved land management, said that fire-related costs used more than half of the U.S. Forest Service budget in 2012. This was twice as much as just a decade ago. Rasker warned that with climate change bringing dryer, hotter weather patterns, wildfires are expected to increase and these costs could double again in the next 15 years. The Forest Service now spends as much as $3 billion annually on fire-related costs, including about one-third spent protecting homes.
“We should be thinking about not reimbursing counties and states for firefighting costs,” said Thomas Veblen, Professor of ecology and expert in Rocky Mountain wildfires. “Maybe county commissioners would rethink their land use plan to factor in firefighting costs, or they’d have to tell the public, ‘no, you’re completely on your own.’”
More than 80 percent of land in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), where forest land meets residential zones, remains undeveloped in the West, creating high potential for future residential construction. Current policy creates “perverse incentives” to build in the WUI and allows for people who have lost homes to easily return. In Fourmile Canyon, 29 residents have rebuilt the homes they lost and 29 more have permits, meaning at least one-third of destroyed homes could be replaced in this dangerous zone.
In a radio interview with KCRW in Los Angeles, Rasker said that the bulk of firefighting costs are currently paid for by federal taxpayers. But he suggested that there would be a very different pattern of development in the West if more of these costs were paid by homeowners and planners.
Veblen and Rasker both said current national policy encourages residential development in fire-risk areas because it prioritizes protecting homes and putting out all fires, while spreading the high cost among taxpayers at large. Another white paper study by Headwaters Economics showed that periodic, low-level fires are necessary to remove fuel buildup, but with homes in the way current policy only allows for about two percent of natural wildfires to burn. While obligated to protect private property in the short term, the U.S. Forest Service has acknowledged that this is not a viable long-term strategy.
Veblen favors policies like the new $150 “rural fire fee” in California, which effectively shifts fire-related costs from the national tax base to those residents who risk living in the WUI.
But policies like the fire fee are controversial, with opponents like California Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries.
“To say that because you live in a certain community you should pay a higher rate or a higher tax begs the question of whether we should talk to those folks in high-crime areas and say ‘well, you need to pay a higher tax because you have a higher impact on our prisons,’” Jeffries said in the KCRW interview.
The issue is bound to remain controversial in Colorado, where a recent study conducted by I-News Network showed that one in four residents lives in fire zones. For Veblen, the stakes are obvious and the costs simply too high.
“The science in my mind is clear,” he said. “Anything that slows down people living in this type of environment is, in my opinion, desirable.”
Christi Turner is a reporter, freelance photographer, sustainable development professional and The Boulder Stand’s multimedia guru. She is currently pursuing a graduate degree in environmental newsgathering in print and broadcast at the CU School of Journalism and Mass Communication.