Controlling the destruction caused by wildfires is a hot issue in the West.

By Erica Michel

In 2012—one of the most devastating wildfire years in memory—more than 9 million acres of federal, state, local and private land burned up in the United States. There were 15 large wildfires that year, each burning more than 100,000 acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

During an average year between 1993 and 2002, about 4 million acres would go up in smoke. But between 2003 and 2012, the average number of acres burned increased to 7.3 million. What’s going on?

Although wildfires can occur anywhere in the United States, the West has been particularly hard hit in the last few years,  where wildfires appear to be getting worse.

What’s Happening?

It is difficult to say conclusively that wildfires in the western United States will continue to become more frequent and severe because many factors play a role in determining the severity of a fire season including annual precipitation and wind conditions. There is, however, evidence to suggest that wildfires will become more difficult and costly to manage in the future.

Firefighters with grass fireMany experts agree that practices to suppress wildfires have caused vegetation to build up to such a degree that forests become even more vulnerable to larger fires. Population growth in some forested areas is another factor.

While the chief causes can be debated, the consequences cannot. A rise in the frequency and severity of wildfires is increasing the costs of suppression for states and forcing many states to rethink how they allocate resources for wildfires.

Studies suggest the wildfire season is lengthening—some scientists predict the wildfire season could be two to three weeks longer by 2070. A longer fire season may not always result in more wildfires, but there appears to be the potential for more severe and frequent wildfires in store for the West.

Wildfires have always been a feature of the American West, and they play important ecological roles. Many animal and plant species rely on wildfires for survival. Some species of wildflowers only bloom following a fire; the Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine requires fire to open its cones and spread its seeds. The role of wildfires in ecosystems was not always well-understood, and as more people and industries moved into wildland areas during the late 1800s and early 1900s, wildfires inflicted greater societal costs.

After a series of particularly devastating wildfires in 1910 that claimed the lives of 78 firefighters and destroyed many communities, federal and state governments increased wildfire suppression efforts, and raised public awareness of wildfire risk. This strategy focused solely on suppression and prevention had some unintended consequences, however. Without small fires, forests became overcrowded with trees and underbrush, leaving them susceptible to more severe fires.

Although forest management practices began using controlled burns to prevent large fires in the 1980s and 1990s, many overgrown forests still exist as a result of historic practices—a problem made worse when wildland areas face droughts or insect infestations that leave trees and plants more susceptible to fires.

The People Factor

With more people now living in wildfire prone areas, the threat of more destructive fires ahead increases. According to a study by the U.S. Forest Service, 32 percent of U.S. housing units are now located in what are called wildland-urban interface areas. These are areas in and bordering forests, grasslands and other natural resources that have varying risk of wildfires, depending on their location, climate and the type of natural resources located in the area.

More people relocating into high-risk areas also increases the potential for man-made fires. The 2011 Los Conchas wildfire in New Mexico began when a tree fell on a power line that served six homes. The fire went on to burn more than 150,000 acres. The presence of homes and communities in the wildland-urban interface area also increases the risk that homes and property will be destroyed in wildfires. Colorado’s Black Forest Fire last year destroyed more than 500 homes and killed two people. Sprawl into the wildland-urban interface area makes it more complex for federal, state and local agencies to manage wildfire risk through mechanisms such as controlled burns. These examples demonstrate that even if wildfires do not become more severe or frequent, they will continue to be more destructive and costly to prevent and extinguish.

The Cost of Wildfires

The costs of wildfires are already on the rise. The U.S. Forest Service spent $1.2 billion annually between 2001 and 2010 on fire suppression—nearly double the $580 million spent annually in the preceding decade. And while only 13 percent of the Forest Service budget went toward fire suppression in 1991, by 2012, 40 percent of the budget was directed at suppression efforts.

This has forced the federal agency to transfer funds away from other programs into suppression work. Between FY 2002 and FY 2012, the U.S. Forest Service transferred $2.8 billion from other programs to wildfire suppression. These transfers are making it more difficult for federal agencies to work on wildfire prevention programs, such as clearing forest underbrush that provides fuel for wildfires.

Suppression efforts are also stretching state budgets. A 2010 survey by the National Association of State Foresters found that state forest agencies spend $1.6 billion annually (which includes federal funding distributed by state agencies) to protect against, prevent and suppress wildfires. Many western states are anticipating another difficult fire season, especially in drought-plagued areas such as California. The prospect of worsening fires in the future has states examining the way they fund and manage wildfires.

Preparing for Wildfires

Montana is a biennial budget state with a regular legislative session every two years. The state historically funded wildfire suppression through supplemental appropriations from the general fund during the next following legislative session after wildfires occur. After a particularly challenging fire season in 2007 forced a special session to appropriate an unprecedented $42 million to state agencies for wildfire suppression and recovery costs, the Legislature created an Interim Fire Suppression Committee to study wildfire suppression and management in Montana. During that special session, the Legislature also established a special $40 million revenue fund for the 2008-2009 fire season.

In 2008, the interim committee released a report and recommendations on wildfire suppression and recovery in Montana. Partly in response to the report, the Montana Legislature, during the 2013 legislative session, established a mechanism to automatically replenish the special revenue fund created in 2007 to provide more constant funding for suppression.

“The new method of funding fires reduces the possibility of a special session. It also increases the efficiency of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, which used to have to fund immediate costs from its operating budget until a supplemental appropriation could be made,” says Barb Smith, the operations manager for Montana’s Legislative Fiscal Division. Additionally, the new legislation allows $5 million from the special revenue fund to be used every two years for forest restoration and wildfire prevention efforts.

In 2013, Colorado established a permanent interim Wildfire Matters Review Committee charged with reviewing and proposing legislation related to wildfire protection. In its first year, the committee drafted 10 pieces of legislation, eight of which were introduced this session.

The legislation proposes a variety of measures to strengthen Colorado’s ability to prevent and fight forest fires, including a tax credit for landowners in the wildland-urban interface area who take wildfire mitigation measures. Previously, the state offered a tax deduction. Other bills address firefighter safety and benefits, local government flexibility in forest land management, and creation of a Wildfire Information Resource Center to improve communications. The state legislature is also considering bills to strengthen Colorado’s aerial firefighting abilities.

Senator Ellen Roberts (R) introduced a bill that would repair and upgrade Colorado’s emergency radio system to improve communication among all levels of government engaged in fighting wildfires.

“Wildfires are a long-term problem with no silver bullet solution. States are going to have to approach it as it fits their forest health challenges and their wildland urban interface concerns,  and bring their resources to bear on the problem. Since large areas of forest land in the West are owned by the federal government, a significant component to improved forest health is going to require a closer collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service,” says Roberts.

The Big One

California faces unique wildfire prevention and suppression challenges. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, established in 1885, is responsible for preventing and suppressing wildfire in “state responsibility areas” that comprise 31 million acres of largely privately owned land valued for that their watershed and other natural resources. The other roughly two-thirds of the state is either managed by the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies or is protected by local entities.

More than half of the 20 largest fires in California’s history have occurred since 2002, and the state is preparing for more difficult wildfire seasons in the years ahead. Part of that preparation has been to bolster the state’s fire prevention efforts by increasing participation in local land use decisions though legislation enacted in 2012 that requires counties with a high fire hazard to consult with the fire service when planning new developments. The legislation also requires cities and counties to have adequate fire and suppression resources before approving any development.

Beginning in 2008, the state also strengthened requirements on building standards in the state responsibility areas.

As of February 2014, the California wildfire agency had already responded to 600 wildfires, more than double the amount last year. In fact, the 2013 fire season was never officially ended, as the state continues to face unseasonably warm temperatures and historic drought. The governor’s proposed FY 2015 budget includes $50 million to improve forest health. “The governor and the Legislature have invested in measures to improve forest health and create a landscape that is more resilient to California’s inevitable wildfires,” says Caroline Godkin, CAL FIRE’s deputy director of legislation. “The timing is right with the effects of climate change creating warmer, drier conditions and fire seasons that are getting longer.”

Indirect Costs of Wildfires

Suppression costs are a simple way to measure wildfire costs, but they do not reflect the full cost of wildfires. Wildfires also inflict damages that are much more difficult to calculate. These indirect costs come from restoring forests to protect watersheds, flooding that may occur in areas burned by wildfires, lost revenues from businesses and industries in affected communities, and decreased property values, to name a few.

One of the most significant lingering costs of wildfires for states can be water treatment. “A lot of people don’t immediately make the connection between forest health and our water supply,” says Colorado’s Roberts. “But we need healthy forests for our quantity and quality of water.”

After a wildfire, rain in watershed areas can push sediment and debris into urban water supplies, and treatment and removal can be costly. A 2009 study by the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition attempted to quantify these and other indirect costs for several large wildfires in the West. The study found that the cost of wildfires could be up to 30 times higher than the direct costs often reported, depending on factors such as population density.

The Future for Fire Prevention and Suppression

As the potential for large destructive fires grows, federal, state and local governments will continue to look for ways to improve funding, prevention and suppression tools, and ensure firefighters have the resources they need to fight challenging wildfires. Some local communities are joining the effort in creative ways, such as using herds of goats to help clear away the flammable underbrush in at-risk areas. And private landowners who choose to live in forested areas are increasingly being encouraged to maintain the growth on their property.

In addition to the measures states are already taking, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in February that it will spend $30 million in 12 western states on forest restoration to help reduce the potential for wildfires.

Wildfires will continue to be an unpredictable force in the West. Preventing them will require cooperation at every level to restore and maintain forest health and reduce wildfire risk.

Erica Michel is a research analyst with NCSL’s Fiscal Affairs Program.

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