In the past couple of decades, there has been an explosion of development in high-fire-risk areas. There’s a term for this in the firefighting world: the WUI, pronounced “wooey,” short for wildland urban interface. In states such as California, Arizona and Washington, cabins, vacation homes and increasingly whole towns and even cities are spreading into forests and wildlands.
Research from the Western think tank Headwaters Economics shows that in the West, there are millions of homes considered to be at direct risk of wildfires. There are no signs of this trend of building in the WUI slowing down, even as climate change is predicted to bring longer and hotter fire seasons.
Ray Rasker of Headwaters Economics, an expert on wildfires and the built environment in California, said buildings in high-risk areas could be made more resistant to fires in future, often through relatively simple measures. He cited nonflammable roofing material and siding for houses, not using wooden decks, installing fine mesh screens on roof vents, and planting fire-resistant vegetation close to houses.
He also warned that in the aftermath of large fires there is often a temptation to waive or loosen high building standards in order to rebuild as quickly as possible, which he said would be a mistake.
“Protecting homes and people from wildfires is expensive. Even more costly are the recovery efforts following the wildfire, which include road repairs, landscape rehabilitation, home and property restoration and infrastructure rebuilding. Many of these secondary impacts take months or years to fully manifest and add millions of dollars to the overall costs of a wildfire.
“Although the federal government pays for a bulk of immediate suppression costs, or money spent on firefighting, nearly half of all other short- and long-term damages from wildfires are incurred at the local level.”
“The cost of California’s historic 2017 wildfires has not been completely tallied but likely will reach into the hundreds of billions of dollars. What we do know is this: Cities and counties, in the end, will foot at least half of the bill,” noted Ray Rasker in a Los Angeles Times column….
“Scores of communities across California are just now starting to confront what our research found: that the cost of the 2017 fires will burden local homeowners, businesses and governments for many years to come. Decisions on how and where to rebuild lie ahead for them, and this is the moment they should implement wildfire-resistant building policies, for the protection of both lives and city coffers.”
After last year’s calamity, officials are making the same decisions that put homeowners at risk in the first place…
In 2016, Rasker, from Headwaters Economics, took that message to the Obama administration. Invited to the White House for a meeting about wildfires, he argued that local officials were issuing building permits near national forests and parks knowing that federal forest firefighters were likely to protect them—and pick up the cost.
“There’s this disconnect between local land-use authority and what happens when things go wrong,” Rasker recalls saying. He urged officials to seek ways to increase federal grants and other payments to communities that made smart land-use decisions and cut funds for those that didn’t. The White House staff said they agreed with him, Rasker says. Nothing changed.
Look at statewide numbers and Montana’s economy seems to be doing well. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of jobs in the state of Montana grew 20 percent, according to a report released last year by Headwaters Economics. Personal income grew, as did statewide employment.
If you live outside a city, though, there’s a good change you won’t see much evidence of that growth. For the next six months, a group of journalists from western Montana, supported by High Country News and the Solutions Journalism Network, will dig into the question: What are Montana communities, especially rural ones, doing to respond to this trend, to help their residents weather the economic winter? And what could they learn from other communities?
Preemptive purchase of land or development rights in fire-prone areas, whether before or after a fire, is one recommendation of a 2014 white paper published by Headwaters Economics, a Montana nonprofit research group that focuses on land management. Funds could come from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund or local bond elections, it said.
The key is weighing the cost of protecting homes against the value of the property. Northern California’s Sierra foothills showed promise, Headwaters executive director Ray Rasker said.
“We looked at some fires that cost $700,000 per home,” Rasker said. “Pretty soon you look at the situation where it would have been cheaper to just buy the open space.”
Like most critics of current practices, though, Rasker sees land buyouts as only secondary to a more urgent effort to discourage new development in fire-prone areas.
The Headwaters report found that only about 16% of what is called the wildland-urban interface has been developed in the West, leaving room for huge increases in fire vulnerability if local planning boards continue to approve developments there.
…In the past couple of decades, there has been an explosion of development in high fire-risk areas. There’s a term for this in the firefighting world: the WUI, pronounced like “wooey,” short for wildland urban interface. In states from California to Arizona to Washington, cabins, vacation homes and increasingly whole towns and even cities are spreading into forests and wildlands.
Research from the western think tank Headwaters Economics shows that in the West, there are some 2 million homes considered to be at direct risk of wildfires. There are no signs of this trend of building in the WUI slowing down, even as climate change is predicted to bring longer and hotter fire seasons.
Two million homes bump against wildlands in the West, the majority in two states with the highest risk, Washington and California, according to Headwaters Economics, an independent nonprofit group that studies wildfire prevention. People get to live and work in remote locations with beautiful views, but the value of properties at a moderate to high risk of being engulfed is about $500 billion, according to CoreLogic, a company that studies real estate economics, not to mention the risk to people’s lives.
“It’s a witch’s brew,” Tom Harbour, the former national fire and aviation director for the Forest Service, said for a 2015 story about the challenges his firefighters faced when he sent them to fight fires that are better left alone to burn. “The risk keeps increasing. I’m putting firefighters in harm’s way.”
Chris Mehl, policy director with Headwaters Economics, a Montana research group that specializes in land use policies including fire prevention, said California would be forced into building more resilient communities.
“This trend is impossible — we can’t keep this up,” he said of the increasingly frequent fires. “But how we build and where we build and the extent and the density — these are all things that are in our control,” he said.
Decisions on land management — issues like oil and gas exploration or balancing the needs of industry and tourism — can pit neighbor against neighbor. Ray Rasker and Headwaters Economics, the nonprofit research group he leads, jump into the fray, helping communities in the West make smart, data-driven decisions.
Sometimes Headwaters Economics goes deep, like its program to curb threats posed by today’s more frequent wildfires that burn bigger and longer than ever.
The group brought together experts from across the country for a forum to come up with solutions. Headwaters is now working with 18 cities and counties — and will start meeting with eight more next year — to reduce their risk. The group identifies neighborhoods facing the biggest threat and helps rewrite ordinances with fire safety in mind. A municipality might, for example, require flame-retardant roofs on homes built near forests.
“A think tank would write a white paper and say, ‘Here are some solutions,’ ” Mr. Rasker says. “We don’t do that. We say, ‘Here are some solutions, and we can solve it.’ ”
Other projects aim to package data in easy-to-use formats. Through the group’s Economic Profile System, users pull data from 17 federal agencies on topics like economic development and land use, and generate reports by county, region, state, or nationwide. Compiling such reports from scratch would take weeks of work, even for trained economists, Mr. Rasker says
Because Headwaters helps people discover facts, the organization is often able to avoid the political divisiveness now roiling the country, Mr. Rasker says.
“When I get back in the car and I’m driving home, I think to myself, ‘That was just the coolest group of people,’ ” he says. “It never occurred to me to think about whether they were Democrats or Republicans. It’s irrelevant. Those are folks who love where they live. They’re very passionate about their neighbors and about their community, and they’re trying to do the best they can.”
…Amy Roberts, the head of Boulder’s Outdoor Industry Association, which spearheaded the trade show move from Utah to Denver, said it is evident that the administration was unprepared for the backlash.“They underestimated how people feel about their public lands.”
Roberts thinks Trump didn’t have the right information when he signed off on the monument reduction. Since he campaigned on a promise to revive rural economies, Roberts said, he must not have seen the Headwaters Economics study showing the 1.9 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument between 2001 and 2015 spurred population growth of 13 percent around the region while personal income grew 32 percent and jobs grew by 24 percent.
Maybe, Roberts said, Trump missed these key points: the 2.8 million comments submitted during Zinke’s review of 27 national monuments, a vast majority of which supported current monument designations and the OIA report showing Americans spending $887 billion on outdoor gear and travel, supporting 7.6 million jobs and $125 billion in federal, state and local taxes.
…Companies including Patagonia, REI and North Face joined a “monuments group” convened by the association to help defend the preserves. Among other things, the companies have helped publicize in social media and elsewhere what they consider the economic importance of national monuments.
They point to a study released last summer by Headwaters Economics found the Utah counties of Garfield and Kane neighboring Grand Staircase-Escalante experienced double-digit jobs and population growth after the monument was created.
These questions extend not just to those homes destroyed by the Northern California wildfires, but to developers across the country who are choosing to build in high-risk zones. Sixty percent of new homes built in the U.S. since 1990 have been constructed in areas that adjacent to fire-prone public lands, and this is forecasted to continue, according to an analysis by Montana-based Headwaters Economics. Kelly Pohl, a researcher at Headwaters, says now’s the time to pressure developers to halt this trend—or, at least, to start using smart land-use strategies to reduce risk.
“We have to honor and recognize that this has been a really tragic fire season for lots of communities across the country. We’re talking about real people with memories, communities, and experiences that have been severely impacted by these fires,” she said. “But people’s memories are short, and we have an opportunity to learn from this.”
Across the West, more young people are moving out of rural communities than in. In every decade since 1980, most rural counties in the 11 Western states lost 20-somethings, without an influx of other young adults to make up for the loss, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau migration data by the Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics.
A few managed to attract young people with the lure of some nearby metro area like Albuquerque or Denver, or a roaring tourism industry like Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but the undeniable trend has been a slow march to cities, where, especially in the West, jobs and people are increasingly concentrated.
Headwaters Economics has studied the local economies surrounding 17 national monuments and found all showed continued or improved growth in key economic indicators.
Nationally, outdoor recreation generates $887 billion in consumer spending and 7.6 million jobs each year, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.
The designation of national monuments can elevate a region’s profile, drawing tourists and buoying local economies.
A study of 17 Western monuments from Headwaters Economics found that counties around each site tended to gain more jobs and population compared with similar counties in each state.
…The Headwaters Economics’ report, “Business for Montana’s Outdoors Five-year Report: Montana’s Public Lands, Jobs, and the Economy” shows 102,000 new jobs were created in Montana between 2000 and 2015. About 85 percent of those new jobs were in service-related industries that run the gamut from outdoor recreation, health care and real estate.
“Our public lands are a serious business,” said Marne Hayes, Business for Montana Outdoors executive director. “When you see rising personal income and job growth in communities that are home to protected public lands, it adds to the importance of advocating for this crucial business asset.”
…Since 1970, employment in the West has grown 176 percent, twice as fast as in the rest of the nation; personal income has gone up along with it.
To understand how this transformation has affected Western economies Rasker turned to Bozeman (including the region around Yellowstone). Compared with those areas, he found, Bozeman is growing at a faster rate, according to standard measures like population, employment, and per capita income. The reason, he concluded, is that the town has as its economic infrastructure the immediate accessibility of public lands. That is what entices people with the most portable and independent jobs — and, often, the rich — to settle there. The same applies to places like it.
In another study, Rasker looked at each county according to its share of public lands. Over the past forty-five years, the economies in places with more access performed better — one long, strong trend.
The proposed cuts to PILT are even more significant in light of a proposal to eliminate an additional source of federal funding to rural areas: the Secure Rural Schools program. The program, which funds local education, road building, and other basic services in areas hit-hard by the decline in logging on public lands, expired in 2015 and President Trump’s proposed budget does not re-authorize it.
It’s these sparsely-populated, rural counties with large amounts of public land that stand to lose the most if PILT is cut, said Mark Haggerty, an economist with Headwaters Economics, a non-partisan economic research firm in Bozeman, Montana. He mapped the impact of the proposed federal payment cuts on every county. He has been working with counties in rural Idaho that are staring down a loss of 40 percent of their budgets.