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Controlling Fire Suppression Costs

Solutions to the Growing Wildland-Urban Interface and Associated Costs

A principal reason for the escalating cost of wildland firefighting is the growing number of homes being built in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). This fact has been quantified and demonstrated repeatedly, yet most proposed solutions to hold down or reduce fire suppression costs fail to address it. Suggested fixes–such as increased coordination among agencies and educating homeowners how to live more appropriately near fire-prone lands–are focused on increasing the safety of existing residences in the WUI, but lack the means to control future costs and may unintentionally have the effect of increasing residential growth and subsequent fire suppression costs near fire-prone lands.

The white paper, Solutions to the Rising Costs of Fighting Fires in the Wildland-Urban Interface (580K PDF) examines:

  • Ideas for Controlling the Rising Cost of Fighting Fires
  • Why the Cost of Fighting Wildfires Continues to Escalate
  • The Wildland-Urban Interface Significant Contibution to Wildfire Costs
  • Who Pays Firefighting Costs?

Firefighting costs will continue to escalate unless there is a financial disincentive to building homes on fire-prone lands. The report offers ten ideas for controlling the rising cost of protecting homes from wildland fires:

Average Annual Cost of Protecting Homes from Wildfires in Montana

Chart: Average Annual Cost of Protecting Homes from Wildfires in Montana

  1. Mapping: Publish Maps Identifying Areas with High Probability of Wildland Fires.
  2. Education: Increase Awareness of the Financial Consequences of Home Building in Fire-Prone Areas.
  3. Redirecting Federal Aid towards Land Use Planning: Provide Technical Assistance and Financial Incentives to Help Local Governments Direct Future Development Away from the Wildland-Urban Interface.
  4. Cost Share Agreements: Add Incentives for Counties to Sign Agreements that Share the Costs of Wildland Firefighting between Local and Federal Entities.
  5. Land Acquisition: Purchase Lands or Easements on Lands that are Fire-Prone and at Risk of Conversion to Development.
  6. A National Fire Insurance and Mortgage Program: Apply Lessons from Efforts to Prevent Development in Floodplains.
  7. Insurance: Allow Insurance Companies to Charge Higher Premiums in Fire-Prone Areas.
  8. Zoning: Limit Development in the Wildland-Urban Interface with Local Planning and Zoning Ordinances.
  9. Eliminate Mortgage Interest Deductions: Eliminate Home Interest Mortgage Deductions for New Homes in the Wildland-Urban Interface.
  10. Reduce Federal Firefighting Budgets: Induce Federal Land Managers to Shift More of the Cost of Wildland Firefighting to Local Governments.

The pros and cons of each idea are explored, along with a discussion of the likelihood that each idea will succeed in controlling future firefighting costs.

Addressing the issue of ever-escalating fire suppression expenses could achieve a number of related public policy goals: increasing fiscal responsibility, introducing a fairer and more equitable distribution of those costs among those benefiting from wildfire protection, and improving the safety of future homeowners and wildland firefighters.

To succeed, several ideas will have to be applied concurrently, and they will require government support and direction. The tremendous scale of the problem (in terms of acres, ownership complexity and cost) means that federal government will have to play a role. The involvement from Congress and the federal agencies is also important because the current system of incentives is part of the problem. By spending large sums every year to protect homes from wildfires, the federal government is subsidizing the true cost of development. Without financial disincentives to building homes on dangerous, fire-prone lands, the problem will get worse.

At the least, the proposed solutions presented in the report (580K PDF) should begin a public dialogue on the need for policies that will decrease the future cost of protecting homes from wildfires. At the best, the ideas offer an array of options for the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Congress to explore and adopt.

News Release, Nov. 18, 2009

For more information, contact:
Chris Mehl at 406.570.8937 or [email]