Fire & Economics

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Disaster spending and mitigation: A state-by-state story

Webinar recording.

This webinar will provide an overview of The Pew Charitable Trust’s recent work on natural disaster spending. Remarks will focus on how all levels of government—and states in particular—can manage rising disaster costs by improving how they track spending and by investing in mitigation. Research by Pew has found that disaster assistance is spread across many federal and state agencies and that comprehensive data, especially on what states spend, is missing. Better data could allow both federal and state policymakers to make more strategic decisions about how they spend on disasters, including mitigation measures that reduce the impact of future events—which a recent Pew analysis found saves money in every state and across disaster types.

Colin Foard, Associate Manager, Fiscal Federalism, The Pew Charitable Trusts, presents.

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Minorities are most vulnerable when wildfires strike in the US

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This study, which can be found in the journal PLoS One, suggests that people of color, especially Native Americans, face more risk from wildfires than whites. It is another example of how the kinds of disasters exacerbated by climate change often hit minorities and the poor the hardest.

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Socioeconomic vulnerability to ecological changes to national forests and grasslands in the Southwest

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The flow of ecosystem services derived from forests and grasslands in the Southwestern United States may change in the future. People and communities may be vulnerable if they are exposed, are sensitive, and have limited ability to adapt to ecological changes. Geospatial descriptions of ecosystem services, projected climate-related ecological changes, and socioeconomic conditions are used to assess socioeconomic vulnerability to changes in the provision of ecosystem services by national forests and grasslands in the Southwest. Vulnerability is uneven in the Southwest due to varying projected effects of climate on forest ecosystem services, and different levels of exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity of people in the region.

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Full community costs of wildfire

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This webinar was originally presented August 29, 2018 11am AZ/12pm MDT by Kimiko Barrett of Headwaters Economics.

As wildfires increase in size and severity, the costs to protect homes and lives similarly rise. Yet protecting communities represents a relatively small portion of the total costs of a wildfire—other short- and long-term impacts yield a variety of costs that often go unrecognized. In an analysis of five case studies—the Hayman (2002), Old, Grand Prix, and Padua Complex (2003), Schultz (2010), Rim (2013), and Loma fires (2016)—suppression costs averaged nine percent of total wildfire costs; additional short-term expenses and long-term damages accounted for 91 percent of total wildfire costs. Nearly half of all wildfire costs are paid at the local level by government agencies, non-governmental organizations, businesses, and homeowners. The remaining wildfire costs are paid at the state and federal level, or are paid by a combination of local, state, and federal organizations. Overall, short-term expenses such as suppression, relief aid, evacuation services, and home and property loss comprise around 35 percent of total wildfire costs. Long-term damages, which can take years to fully manifest, account for approximately 65 percent of total wildfire costs. Although wildfire costs greatly vary depending on factors within the built and unbuilt environment, increasing trends in climate change and development patterns favoring high-wildfire-risk areas suggest a parallel rise in total wildfire costs. Planning new communities and developments with consideration of wildfire risk is one way to accommodate growth while living alongside wildfires.

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Using state and transition models to determine the cost of ecosystem services

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A ranch-level model using state-and-transitions models for three ecological sites is used to determine the trade-offs of providing various ecosystem services. The hypothetical ranch is located in northern Colorado and is based upon area average ecological site characteristics and livestock production practices. Management decisions include stocking rate and brush control. The model includes exogenous factors such as precipitation and fire. The model solves for optimal decisions over an infinite planning horizon using stochastic dynamic programming. Results show that a ranch cannot provide all ecosystem services in tandem at their highest level, implying that land managers must decide which ecosystems service they want to provide. Also, it is much cheaper in terms of foregone profitability for a ranch to continue to provide a specific ecosystem service that is already provided by the ranch rather than try to transition the ranch to a new ecological state in order to provide a service currently not provided.

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Full community costs of wildfire

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Almost half of the full community costs of wildfire are paid for at the local level, including homeowners, businesses, and government agencies. Many of these costs are due to long-term damages to community and environmental services, such as landscape rehabilitation, lost business and tax revenues, and property and infrastructure repairs. By comparison, our analysis suggests suppression costs comprise around nine percent of total wildfire costs. The remaining costs include short-term expenses, or those costs occurring within the first six months—and long-term damages accruing during many months and years following a wildfire. Communities at risk to wildfires can reduce wildfire impacts and associated costs through land use planning.

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Programmatic analysis of fuel treatments: Landscape to national level

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The importance of cost effective fuel treatment programs has appeared consistently in federal directives (FLAME ACT, National Cohesive Strategy, U.S Department of Interior Office of Policy Analysis) as a priority. Implementing cost effective fuel treatment programs requires a spatially explicit and integrated systematic approach that can be applied to the landscape, program and national scale. The objectives of this study were three-fold. The first objective was to generate cost effective fuel treatment programs at the landscape scale and their impact on the preparedness program. The second objective was to quantify the interrelationship between the fuel program and preparedness program by budget alternative at a landscape scale to provide mangers with the fuel and preparedness budgets that achieve the highest return on investment for any combination of budgets. The third objective was to form cost effective national and regional fuel treatment programs based on the data collected from the landscape analysis that considers national and regional policies.

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Impacts of Oregon’s 2017 wildfire season

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While news headlines were quick to capture the “cost” of firefighting, suppression represents only a fraction of the true cost of wildfire. There are huge impacts to air quality and health, school athletics, travel and tourism, employment and the economy, transportation, and iconic Oregon economic sectors such as the state’s wine and timber industries. No single state agency is charged with documenting these costs, so the Oregon Forest Resources Institute set out to gather what information is currently available, from media reports, individual interviews and hard-nosed research.

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Do fuel treatment costs affect wildfire suppression costs and property damages?

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Spatial wildfire suppression costs regressions have been re-estimated at a more disaggregated level for the nine Geographic Area Coordination Center (GACC’s) regions using five years of data for fires involving National Forests. Results of these revised regression determined that only in the California GACCs did mechanical fuel treatment reduce wildfire suppression costs. However, the results of our second major hypothesis tests that fuel treatments, by making wildfires less damaging and easier to control, may reduce property damages (i.e., structures—barns, out buildings, etc. and residences lost) seems to be confirmed for acres treated with prescribed burning. In four out of the seven GACC regions prescribed burning lowered the number of structures damaged by wildfire. The results for mechanical fuel treatment were more mixed, with a significant negative effect in reducing property damages in two of the three regions with a significant coefficient on mechanical fuel treatment. These results are consistent with past research that suggests that for fuel treatments to reduce wildfire suppression costs it may be necessary to substantially increase the amount of area treated.

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Spatiotemporal evaluation of fuel treatment and previous wildfire effects on suppression costs

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This project quantifies the effects of fuel treatments and previously burned areas on daily fire management costs, as well as summarizes recent encounter rates between fuel treatments and
wildland fires across the conterminous United States.  Unexpectedly, we found that encounters with fuel treatments and previous fires increase daily fire management costs. Managers working in the field validated the concept suggesting that fuel treatments and previous fires are often areas where suppression efforts are applied in greater force.

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