Environmental economist Ray Rasker is wary. “Incentives matter, but disincentives matter, too,” says Mr. Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman. “I believe in providing economic incentives for companies and landowners that do extraordinary things, but you can get results much more cheaply and effectively by penalizing polluters who put out CO2.”…
…Attracted by the clean air, open spaces, relatively low costs of living, and access to recreation, western states have experienced boundless growth in recent years. Many newcomers come for the scenery, buying homes smack dab in the forest, despite decades of data showing these areas to be prone to fire.
But with federal firefighting forces at the ready, these homeowners have little cause for concern, according to Ray Rasker, an economist and executive director of Headwaters Economics, of Bozeman, Mont. “Local counties can permit subdivisions without having to incur most of the costs of fighting fires,” Rasker said in an earlier interview. “The firefighting costs are paid by the national taxpayer. It amounts to a subsidy, basically.”
With global warming, the fires are only expected to worsen in coming years. Melting snowpack no longer keeps forests moist through dry summer months. Beetles that were once killed off by winter deep freezes are propagating and creating ever-growing swaths of dead, easily ignited trees. “We’re only starting to see the magnitude of the problem,” Rasker said.
According to a study by Rasker’s group, about 14 percent of private land surrounding national forests in the West has been developed and an estimated $1 billion is now being spent annually by federal land management agencies to protect homes in these areas. Expect both numbers to continue to rise, Rasker said.
“We’re asking firefighters to risk their lives to protect homes,” Rasker said. “If you build in harm’s way, you should at least be responsible for that.”… (more…)
…This tremendous expansion [of the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI)] has not only made wildfires more dangerous, it has made them more expensive. A recent audit by the General Accounting Office detailed the tremendous increase in the costs of fighting wildfires (hitting $1.9 billion in 2006 and $1.37 billion in 2007) and wildland fire managers place most of the blame for the rising costs on fighting more fires in the expanding WUI. Analysts have pegged the costs of protecting homes as high as 50 to 90 percent of the total of all wildland fire management costs.
As bad as the WUI problem has become for wildland fire managers, a new study published by the Montana-based, independent non-profit research organization, Headwater Economics, shows that it could become much worse. Headwater Economics researcher, Patty Gude and her colleagues, found that only 14 percent of the available WUI in western states is currently developed, leaving 86 percent available for new construction.
The researchers worked to identify the extent of residential development adjacent to publicly-owned forest lands in the West using census data and maps from the Protected Area Database as well as the National Land Cover Dataset.
Gude says that the results even surprised the research team. “We expected to see something different in terms of how much is developed. We thought the extent would be much greater, but it is actually only a small proportion of what it could be. That means the potential exists for the problem to be much worse. If protecting homes from fire is expensive now, the cost when more land is developed may swamp the firefighting agency’s budgets entirely.”… (more…)