California Forum

It’s time to get the incentives right on wildfires

Cal Fire strike crews battle the King fire in El Dorado County near Fresh Pond in September.
Cal Fire strike crews battle the King fire in El Dorado County near Fresh Pond in September.

Every year we hear about the devastating effects of wildfires, with lives risked and millions of dollars spent defending homes. But something is different this time. People are now asking: Why do we keep building houses in fire-prone areas? A fire marshal in a Wyoming resort community, thinking about the safety of her firefighters, refers to these places as “suicide subdivisions.”

Defending homes can lead to tragedy. Firefighter fatalities have doubled in the last 30 years, and last year 19 hotshots died defending an Arizona town that had done little to prepare for the inevitability of wildfires. The town had been evacuated, yet the crew was sent in anyway. As a parent of one of the firefighters told me: Brave men died defending empty structures.

The cost trends around wildfire also are troublesome. Since 1990, the number of homes destroyed has tripled. Yet in the last 30 years, 60 percent of new homes in the U.S. were built in the wildland-urban interface, the private land next to public forests.

Federal firefighting costs average $3 billion annually; also triple the amount from a decade ago. Our research and others indicates that at least one-third and up to 95 percent of the firefighting bill goes to defend private homes.

In some fires in the Sierra Nevada, agencies can spend $200,000 to $400,000 per home. An example of the high costs is the recent King fire, which destroyed 12 homes and burned almost 98,000 acres, and cost more than $53 million to fight.

Half of the Forest Service’s budget today is taken over by fire suppression, so fewer dollars are available for things the public enjoys, like campgrounds and hiking trails. Perversely, the agency also “borrows” money internally from funds designated to reduce future fire risks such as fuel reduction.

One logical step is to treat wildfires like other natural disasters and fund them through FEMA. This will eliminate “fire borrowing,” but we are waiting for Congress to act.

Other efforts, like voluntary programs to increase the survivability of homes and selective clearing of fuels through prescribed burning or logging, are important, yet not enough, as the trends keep worsening.

What has not yet been tried is altering the pattern of future home development on fire-prone lands. The key is to get the incentives right. Currently, local governments benefit from a federal government subsidy that pays the bulk of firefighting costs and underwrites risky and expensive developments. Passing on more costs to local governments – where home building is permitted – would incentivize better planning.

A portion of the Forest Service’s $2.2 billion fire budget – say 1 percent or $22 million – could be directed to communities to facilitate land-use planning. Taking a lesson from flood-plain management, a community rating system could direct more assistance to communities that help themselves through zoning, transferable development rights programs, incentives for cluster development, open-space programs and other planning tools.

In limited cases, it may be cheaper to buy the land instead of fighting successive years of wildfires. Public land managers also could be required to alert local governments about proposed new developments that would be at high risk from wildfires. And we must map fire risk to alert would-be homebuyers of dangers before they commit to living in a tinderbox.

Building homes with the Forest Service as a backyard always will be dangerous. We can manage wildfire to an extent, but need to learn to better live with fire which means we must alter the pace, scale and pattern of future development.

For this task, nothing works as well as giving people incentives – negative consequences for decisions by local governments that increase risk, and positive rewards for decisions that reduce risk. The good news is that most carrot-and-stick approaches can be applied today, without having to wait for Congress.

Ray Rasker is the executive director of Headwaters Economics, an independent, Montana-based research group that works to improve community development decisions in the West.