2020 was the worst year ever for wildfires in the United States. In California alone, more than 4 million acres burned, dozens died and thousands of structures were destroyed. And it’s increasingly clear that we’re going to have to figure out how to live with it. Kimiko Barrett is a research and policy analyst for Headwaters Economics, a think tank based in Bozeman, Montana. She said we need to rethink how we build houses, where we build them and even what they look like.
A study by Headwaters Economics found fire-resistant homes can be cheaper than traditional homes, thanks in large part to using more affordable fiber-cement siding.
Voluntary measures by the homeowner just aren’t going to work,” says Barrett, the policy analyst at Headwaters Economics. “One homeowner is going to do everything right, and their neighbor is going to decide not to do anything. And therefore, they’re still at risk.
According to research by the Montana-based land-management firm Headwaters Economics and IBHS, the cost of using fire-resistant building materials is only slightly more expensive—and sometimes less expensive—than using standard materials.
One indicator of outdoor recreation activity, National Park Service visitation numbers, are all over the map, said Megan Lawson, who studies rural economies for Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan research nonprofit based in Bozeman, Montana.
“Several of them actually had higher visitation in August than they did in the previous year,” Lawson said, “which I think is doubly remarkable because they’ve eliminated most of their international visitors.”
In such firestorms, many buildings are doomed by embers, which may be lofted for hundreds of yards then fall like snowflakes. These burning bits of debris find ways to penetrate interiors, which are typically filled with furniture, rugs, paneling and other volatile materials.
“Embers will exploit any vulnerability in a home — and once they get inside and ignite, it is very unlikely to survive,” said Kelly Pohl, a researcher at Headwaters Economics.
“All of this adds up to a situation where communities of color stand to be represented even less in the 2020 Census than they have been historically. This would be a monumental step backwards.”
Here to talk about WUIs, building materials, fire prevention and more is Kimiko Barrett. She’s a wildfire researcher at the nonprofit Headwaters Economics. She’ll help us do the numbers on communities at risk and guide us through the “wildfire paradox” that protects homes … until it doesn’t.
“When you look at when a wildfire does occur, it’s the federal government that comes in and pays for that suppression cost. So there’s this inverse fiscal incentive on what is happening at that local scale versus who’s actually paying for the wildfire costs.”
“For a century and more now we’ve been intentionally excluding wildfires from the landscape in the effort to protect homes and communities,” Barrett says. “And in doing so we are aggravating the problem into the future.”
Homeowners and contractors often assume that fire-resistant buildings are more expensive, although Headwaters Economics reckons that, for newly built houses, the costs can be comparable. And fire-safe homes often come with secondary advantages, such as greater energy efficiency, which make them cheaper over time.
“Until it happens in your own backyard, you feel it’s very tangential,” said Kimiko Barrett, a wildfire researcher at Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group. “You don’t think of wildfire risk as something that will happen to you, until it does.”
Planning is still underway to decarbonize Montana’s electricity sector by 2035 and to decarbonize Montana’s economy by 2050, he said.
“A lot of this needs to be done in recognition of the fact that [the energy transition] is already happening,” said Haggerty, noting that the task force is diverse, including everyone from conservationists to energy officials.
Americans are still geographically mobile, and the Western U.S. remains among the top destinations for migrants.
“I don’t want to be doomsday, but it is bleak right now, so we have to think about outdoor recreation as another economic specialization that’s vulnerable to boom-and-bust and think about long-term diversification.”
No one was particularly well prepared for a pandemic, but the tourism industry, with its dependence on visitors and discretionary spending, is highly vulnerable.
The large-scale wildfires along the west coast have three main causes, says Ray Rasker, director at Headwaters Economics. “We have more and more people living in wildfire prone areas, we have a 100-year history of suppressing fires, and add on top of that climate change, it’s hotter and drier, it’s the recipe for fire”.
Colorado has potential to become a model for other coal-dependent states, says Mark Haggerty, an economic geographer associated with the Headwaters Economics, a Montana-based think tank and an advisor on Colorado’s effort. “Discussions and draft recommendations are headed in the right direction, but there is more work to be done, and ultimately the model taking shape will need support from the Legislature and the governor.”
According to a recent analysis from Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group based in Montana, more than 700,000 people of color are at risk of being undercounted this year in the Mountain West alone, as the Mountain West News Bureau has reported.
For counties with economies based on recreation, the source of tourism seems to play a role in whether business has picked up. According to Megan Lawson, Ph.D., of the nonprofit research group Headwaters Economics, the pandemic has put the road trip back in style…“These communities are recovering more quickly than we expected. I think we weren’t anticipating all this pent up demand from when people couldn’t travel,” Lawson explained. “Now all of a sudden it was like America was shot out of a cannon into the rural parts of the country.”
The impacts also stretch beyond immediate job gains because of the way access to recreation drives economic growth in the rural West. Communities that have more protected lands nearby generally grow faster and have higher income levels, said Mark Haggerty, who researches rural economies for Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit think tank in Montana. That growth is driven by both tourism and new arrivals looking to live closer to the outdoors. “Residents and businesses want to be close to public lands,” Haggerty said. “Recreational amenities can attract high-wage jobs.”