Fuels Accumulation

Coinciding with the rise of wildfire activity in the late 1980s and the decline of commercial logging in the early 1990s, the Forest Service announced that it had a “forest health crisis.” Millions of acres of public lands were deemed to be at high to moderate risk of “catastrophic wildfire” because of hazardous fuels accumulations, primarily dense thickets of small-diameter understory trees, saplings, and shrubs along with larger-diameter diseased, dying or dead overstory trees. In a case of extreme irony, the Forest Service argued that so-called “past” fire suppression allowed this live vegetation and dead fuel to accumulate, and these excessive fuel loads were causing the sudden increase in large-scale high-intensity wildfires. If past fires had been allowed to burn instead of being suppressed, then forests would have been naturally thinned, their fuel loads reduced, and theoretically wildfires would be smaller and less costly to manage.

This fire suppression-fuels accumulation argument has some merit in certain ecosystems such as low- elevation ponderosa pine forests that have a low-severity/frequent fire regime, and firefighting has caused these ecosystems to miss some burning opportunities. However, this argument was often overgeneralized to inappropriately include ecosystems such as high-elevation lodgepole pine forests or chaparral shrublands that naturally have high-severity/infrequent fire regimes, so past suppression actions do not have the same impact on their fuels loads or fire severity.

Additionally, the Forest Service aggressively pitched “mechanical fuels reduction treatments” as its preferred cure for the forest health crisis. This often involved commercial extraction of large-diameter trees along with removal of non-commodity small-diameter trees and shrubs. This caused some forest conservationists to charge that the agency was opportunistically using the forest health/fuel hazard “crisis” as a smokescreen to propose timber sales amidst legal constraints and public opposition to continued commercial logging. Consequently, although excess fuels accumulations are part of the reason that wildfire size and severity is increasing in some areas, the argument was over-generalized and sometimes exagerrated, and does not fully explain why suppression costs are rising.

The costs and impacts of various fuels reduction “treatments” are beyond the scope of this paper, but in general, the estimated cost of reducing fuels across millions of acres of public wildlands would be several tens of billions of dollars just for the initial entry treatments.23 Estimates have ranged from 39 to 190 million or more acres on public lands have missed fire cycles due to past suppression efforts, and require some fuels management. Treatment costs range widely, too; for example, as low as $45 or less per acre for prescribed burning to $1,700 or more per acre for mechanical treatments.24 Moreover, in WUI areas, per- acre fuels reduction costs can be higher—one study determined that they were 139% higher than in non- WUI areas.25 This huge expenditure is not a realistic expectation given the current fiscal crisis of federal and state governments. Moreover, it must be understood that treated vegetation and fuels will regrow and accumulate, so fuels reduction projects will have to be maintained at least once every 10 years in perpetuity, thus requiring future expenditures.

A sobering fact is that fuels reduction efforts are not keeping pace either with the rate of natural fuels accumulation or the scale of wildfire activity. Moreover, each “successful” suppression incident needs to account not only for its direct costs, but also the deferred costs of future fuels reduction projects and/or fire suppression actions in adjacent areas that would have burned if not for firefighting efforts. Thus, unless and until fuels management objectives are integrated in wildfire management operations, both fire suppression and fuels reduction costs will continue to rise in the future.

WUI Protection Costs

Another widely recognized contributor to rising suppression costs is the expense of protecting homes and structures in the wildland/urban interface zone (WUI). The percentage of private land and presence of private homes is second only to total fire size as a factor causing increased suppression expenditures.26 Despite the mandate in the Federal Wildland Fire Policy to value private property and natural/cultural resources equally, the fact of the matter is that managers put structural protection in the WUI second only to the protection of human life as their highest priority in determining suppression strategies.27 Significant federal firefighting resources are used to protect private property, and at times the cost of using these suppression resources can be greater than the monetary values of the structures being protected. But public expectations and political pressures compel fire managers to do whatever they can to save homes from wildfire destruction because, in the minds of managers, the negative publicity of burned homes far outweighs the negative effects of high suppression costs.28

Focusing suppression resources on the WUI removes options from firefighters to locate themselves in the best places for taking the safest, most efficient and effective actions. For example, fire managers prefer to use geographic features such as existing forest roads, ridges, or rivers to anchor firelines, but if homes and other private structures are located between these features and a wildfire, then managers are compelled to construct new firelines near the WUI, often in places of difficult terrain or fuel conditions, in order to attempt stopping wildfire spread before it reaches those structures.29 As a matter of safety, efficiency, and effectiveness, firefighters must be able to choose the best ground they can make a stand on, so to place them near vulnerable and often indefensible structures is definitely raising the costs and the ultimate stakes of wildfire suppression.

It is more often the case that instead of placing firefighters directly within or adjacent to the WUI, they are sent to aggressively suppress wildfires located several miles away to prevent fire from spreading anywhere near the WUI. These suppression actions are more costly compared to fire use strategies that might let wildfire burn more acres for either ecological benefits or cost savings—an option that is too often rejected out of fear that wildfire will spread to the WUI. In a major audit of large fire suppression expenses, the USDA OIG determined that in 87% of the fires it audited, private property protection was the primary rationale for firefighting efforts.30 In sum, the public/political pressure to prioritize property protection over other natural and cultural resource values is definitely influencing suppression strategies, making fire and fuels management both more costly and complex.31

Numerous studies have come up with different figures for the size and number of homes in the WUI, and the fact is that there is no agreed spatial definition of the “WUI zone,” but all studies do agree that the WUI is extensive and is rapidly expanding. For example, Forest Service researchers estimate that 44 million homes in the continental U.S. are located in the WUI32 with approximately 8.4 million of these homes being built during the 1990s.33 NAPA predicts that by 2030 there will be a 40% increase in the number of homes in the WUI compared to 2001 levels.34 According to Headwaters Economics, only 14% of available private land located in the WUI is developed, leaving a huge potential for growth in the remaining 86% of the acreage.35

While the current economic recession may have the effect of slowing the rate of new home construction in the WUI, the majority of this new construction is going to second homes or vacation homes of the wealthy who, in general, are still able to move forward on construction plans. Relatedly, some argue that the WUI zone should be expanded to include not only houses, but important urban “infrastructure” such as powerlines, communication towers, even municipal watersheds. This expands the WUI zone to cover an even greater portion of the landscape. Thus, the growing size and scale of the WUI is going to continue being a driver of higher suppression costs unless and until new strategies are created for protecting communities and managing fire and fuels near them.

Several studies have also attempted to precisely calculate the influence of the WUI on suppression costs. In 1994, the USFS estimated that approximately 1/3 of its suppression expenditures that year went towards protection of the WUI. A recent GAO study reported that Forest Service managers estimated that 50-95% of the total firefighting costs on National Forest lands was related to WUI protection.36 When large wildfires burn near homes, this can increase suppression costs by an average $1 million for each additional 125 homes—and the definition of “nearness” includes homes up to 20 miles away from wildfires.37 A study that attempted to quantify the extra cost of suppressing WUI wildfires came to the surprising conclusion that there was no relationship between housing proximity or density and suppression costs, only fire size was a significant variable, however, they explained that this result could have happened because fire managers assumed all wildfires would threaten the WUI, regardless of their proximity to actual houses, and thus the costs of suppressing those more remote wildfires may have not been captured in their study sample.38

In the rigorous study by Headwaters Economics, they determined that annual WUI protection costs in Montana averaged $28 million, and that this figure could grow to $40 million by 2025 if WUI development continues unabated.39 This figure explodes to between $61 and $113 million for WUI protection under the effects of climate change.40 Applied nationally, the Headwaters Economics study estimated that firefighting costs for private property protection alone currently range from $630 million to $1.2 billion, but a 50% growth in housing development could raise annual suppression costs up to two to four billion dollars.41

The unfortunate fact is that hundreds of homes and other structures are lost every year to wildfire in spite of firefighters’ best efforts and the millions of dollars spent on suppression specifically for property protection. For example, the record-breaking $1.8 billion spent on suppression in 2007 still could not prevent 5,400 homes from being destroyed by wildfire.42 It is unrealistic to assume that firefighters will always be successful in saving structures from wildfires, but it is equally unrealistic to expect that they should always try to protect structures regardless of the risks to themselves or the economic costs of their efforts. The whole issue of WUI protection is controversial not only because of its overall effect on suppression costs, but because it also involves issues of social equity between those who pay the costs and those who benefit from suppression actions or fuels projects in the WUI.43 The continuing expansion of the WUI and the societal expectations to protect private property and homes at any and all costs will continue to be another major cost driver in wildfire suppression.

Climate Change

Fuels accumulation and the growth of the WUI have been a fairly steady development over the last century, particularly after WWII when mechanized fire suppression was more successful in excluding fire from the landscape, and housing development exploded in fire-prone wildlands. But a major shift began with the “Siege of ’87”: a significant increase in the number and size of large wildfires. The decades-long growth of fuel loads and rural subdivisions did not explain this sudden shift, but climate change did.

Global warming and climate change are affecting all regions of the planet in several different ways, but in many areas of the West, climate change is causing earlier snowmelts in spring, later rains in fall, lighter snows in winter, and warmer, drier temperatures in summer. All of these changes in weather have combined to create a lengthier time that fuels are available to burn, resulting in longer fire seasons, and more extreme fire behavior. Ongoing climate change is also predicted to cause an increase in severe fire weather and extreme storm events that will bring both abundant lightning and high winds to start and spread wildfires. Indeed, the Forest Service’s 2009 Quadrennial Fire Review now predicts that the effects of global warming and climate change will result in 10-12 million acres burning annually in the U.S.44

Predictions about future suppression spending related to climate change offer dire prospects for containing costs. One study predicted that just a one-degree Fahrenheit increase in average spring/summer temperature would increase suppression costs from $28 to $84 million per year in Montana alone.45 Furthermore, that same one-degree rise in average temperature would lead to a 305% increase in area burned by wildfires, and a 107% increase in suppression costs to protect the WUI.46 This translates into a range between $61 million to $113 million dollars annual increase in suppression expenditures.47 Few studies predict climate change to stop at a one degree rise in temperature; thus, these figures are most likely conservative estimates of future annual increases in suppression costs.

Climate change is among the top three most-cited “socioenvironmental” causes for rising suppression costs, however, it is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss in detail all of the adverse effects of climate change on wildfire. Instead, discussion will move to some of the institutional and operational causes of rising suppression costs, factors that are much less discussed by agencies, politicians, and the news media.