Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Rethinking who pays costs of fighting fires to protect homes in woods

Rob Chaney in the Missoulian (Montana): The best way to save lives and property from forest fires might be to have the U.S. Forest Service stop fighting them. It's not that the federal government's firefighters do a bad job, according to Headwaters Economics director Ray Rasker. In fact, they're too good, and that encourages people to build homes that cost lots of tax dollars to defend.

"Now when you look at a map of new subdivisions, you don't have to pay for the firefighting cost," Rasker said. It's paid by the federal taxpayer. "If you cut the firefighting budget, the federal government would pass the costs to the county level where land-use decisions are being made. Then there would be political cover for county commissioners to express the need to redesign subdivisions or move houses and identify dangerous places."

Rasker was in Missoula on Tuesday as part of the University of Montana's Conservation and Climate Change lecture series. The Montana Legislature hired Headwaters Economics, based in Bozeman, to study firefighting costs after the state had to hold a special session in 2008 to cover unexpectedly high wildfire-suppression costs.

Rasker said he was not an expert on climate change, but saw enough evidence from past climate records to justify some urgency about the future. The study found that firefighting costs doubled in years when the average temperature was just one degree warmer.

"The Montana study tells us it cost $28 million a year to defend homes from wildfires," Rasker said. "If you don't do anything about land-use planning, by 2025 that cost could go to $40 million in today's dollars. With a 1 degree Fahrenheit increase in summer temperatures, the cost would jump to $84 million. On the issue of wildland-urban interface, we're just barely seeing how expensive it could be."…

Lolo Pass, MT, August 18, 2003 -- A firefighter from Bridger Fire Inc. out of Bozeman, Montana works on putting out spot fires that errupted on the Hopeful 2 fire near the Lolo Pass in Montana. Photo by Andrea Booher/FEMA

No comments: