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Home Development on Fire-Prone Lands
West-Wide Summary

© 2007 Headwaters Economics Inc. all rights reserved

Below you will find county-by-county maps and tables that illustrate the data in this study.

Click on chart for a larger version below.

More and more people are building homes in the western "wildland urban interface", the forested areas where housing borders undeveloped public lands. With more homes built in forested areas, it has become increasingly expensive to fight the inevitable wildfires that are part of life in the arid West. Building remote homes on the outskirts of western wildlands is placing a huge strain on U.S. firefighting efforts. The cost to U.S. taxpayers of protecting privately owned properties in the wildland urban interface has been estimated by Forest Service managers to be as high as $1 billion each year.

Most studies of wildland fire and residential development have focused on the cost of firefighting, damage to private property and solutions such as fuel reduction and fire-safe home building. While some studies quantify the number of homes being built near national forests, until now little research has demonstrated the potential severity of the problem in the future.

On this website, Headwaters Economics has prepared maps and graphs illustrating this emerging problem for western communities. Our analysis takes a long view, looking at the potential for more home construction next to fire-prone public lands and implications for future wildfire fighting costs. With the release of these findings, we hope to refocus the attention of policy makers and western communities on the ramifications of current growth trends, and open a dialogue about the needed course correction to keep homes and firefighters safe and firefighting costs in check.

Key findings of our research include:

  • Only 14% of forested western private land adjacent to public land is currently developed for residential use. Based on current growth trends, there is tremendous potential for future development on the remaining 86%.
  • Given the skyrocketing cost of fighting wildfires in recent years (on average $1.3 billion each year between 2000-2005), this potential development would create an unmanageable financial burden for taxpayers.
  • If homes were built in 50% of the forested areas where private land borders public land, annual firefighting costs could range from $2.3 billion to $4.3 billion per year. By way of comparison, the U.S. Forest Service's annual budget is approximately $4.5 billion.
  • One in five homes in the wildland urban interface is a second home or cabin, compared to one in twenty-five homes on other western private lands.
  • Residential lots built near wildlands take up more than six times the space of homes built in other places. On average, 3.2 acres per person are consumed for housing in the wildland urban interface, compared to 0.5 acres on other western private lands.

Existing Risk Map - Click to Zoom
Yellow areas on the map illustrate existing development in fire-prone areas (forested areas adjacent public lands that have been developed); all other development is shown in red; public lands are shown in green.

Sources and Methods
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