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Nearly Half of All Western Wildfire Costs Go To California

By Alyson Kenward and Urooj Raja

With one of California’s largest-recorded wildfires still burning largely uncontained and threatening water and electricity for millions, the total bill for fighting U.S. wildfires in 2013 is now likely to soar well past $1 billion. By the time the blaze is put out, which could be weeks from now, California’s Rim Fire will likely be among the most expensive wildfires of the year. In fact, during the past 10 years, $4 billion has been spent fighting wildfires in California, more than in any other state.

On average from 2003-2012, California wildfires had 44 percent of all reported suppression costs in the western 11 states (based on fiscal fire years, October 1 - September 30). Only 24 percent of acres burned were in California, on average, over the same time.
 Click image to enlarge.  Credit: Climate Central

Each year, on average, nearly half of all the money spent fighting wildfires in the West goes to California fires. But California’s wildfires typically make up less than a quarter of all the acres burned in the western states. California has 14 percent of all the forested land in the West.

Between 2003-2012, an average of $400 million was spent annually fighting wildfires in California. And on average, California spends almost as much on wildfire suppression each year than 10 other western states combined (Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona).

In the 2008 fire year, which ran from October 2007-September 2008, costs soared to more than $1 billion, partly because of a series of large wildfires that burned more than 350,000 acres in the state’s densely populated southwestern region. That year, a staggering 87 percent of all money spent fighting western wildfires was spent in California.  

A 2007 U.S. Forest Service study also found that on a per-acre basis, California’s wildfires cost more than any other state or region. That’s partly because the firefighting resources themselves cost more in California – crews and equipment are usually significantly more expensive than in other states. 

But the costs in California are also higher because with more people and more development across the state, there’s more at stake when wildfires ignite. Often, more firefighters and equipment need to be mobilized in order to rescue people and save homes and essential infrastructure, like power lines. 

The high cost of fighting wildfires in California is just an indicator of what the entire West can expect in the coming decades. The combination of more wildfires, fueled by warming temperatures, more people living and building infrastructure near and within forests across the West, and changes in forest management practices, will drive the costs of fighting wildfires even higher.

The data illustrated above is based on reported wildfire suppression costs compiled by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, and specifically from historical incident ICS-209 forms and SIT-Reports in the FAMWEB database. These reflect money spent to extinguish a fire, which typically consist of service wages, transportation, supplies and equipment costs, and are not adjusted for inflation. They do not include costs associated with damaged homes and they don’t reflect any loss of life from wildfires. Each year represents the fiscal fire year, which runs from October 1 of the preceding year through to September 30 of the listed year. The data include all wildfires reported on lands under federal protection (larger than 100 acres for timber or 300 acres for brush) minimum threshold as well as all other fires (state and private) that were voluntarily reported by each state. 

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Rising Temps, Shrinking Snowpack Fuel Western Wildfires 
Wildfire Alert Heightened As Blazes Char Western U.S. 
Report: Western Wildfires
Graphic: Annual Number of Big Wildfires is on the Rise
 

Comments

By Chris Topik (Arlington, va 22023)
on August 29th, 2013

a very important policy aspect of this is what is the state, county and local investment in fire prevention and fighting.  In my experience the units of government in CA have far, far more invested in firefighting than any other state or group of states.

can you separate out the federal firefighting expense and the state + local ?

and also the federal vs state + local wildland fire fighting capacity as measured by cost of staffing and equipment (preparedness)

this would be very useful. I think you will see that CA gets a lot of federal resources, but it also contributes far more than others.

and then you might do other analysis on per capita basis, since CA has so many, many people.

and of course, the big policy question is why we are not investing in risk reduction and fire prevention, such as reducing hazardous fuels? instead we spend on emergency after emergency, and don’t get out front with proven methods to reduce wildland risk and protect communities on the edge.

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By Zachary Prusak (Altamonte Springs, FL 32714)
on August 30th, 2013

I would add on to Chris’ comments above by promoting the effectiveness of controlled burning in reducing wildfire intensity while reducing fuel loading at a substantial cost savings. 

A recent study performed on the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Brevard County, Florida, compared the cost of wildfire suppression against the cost of controlled burning conducted with the combined goals of reducing hazardous vegetation fuels and maintaining a healthy ecosystem, mitigating and minimizing the intensity and duration of potential wildfires, with the following results:

The two prescribed burns cost $56,000 ($9.08/acre) to complete. The three wildfires cost $106,000 ($191.68/acre) to extinguish. Projected cost savings of wildfire suppression following the hazardous fuels treatments on these two units was $3.6 million.

Granted, this was in Florida, but this example can be exported to anywhere in the world where there are fire-prone and fire-dependent ecosystems.

Reply to this comment

By jeremy (boulder, co)
on October 20th, 2013

Greetings and well wishes!

Over the last 20 years I have been researching and developing ecological or “green” solutions to
a wide range of problems we face today.  About a decade ago, an idea began forming on how to better
confront the issues of wildfires.  It seemed to me for a long time that the way we confront open
fire was a bit arcane, but surely the great minds of the world were onto a solution.


My father spent a few years as a volunteer fireman in our town and also had a stint as an EMT,
public and private. He was good enough to be asked to join an ariel rescue crew.
Naturally I joined in the junior volunteer cadet program and gained good knowledge in my teen years.
Spending time watching fire and my father and his comrades fight it. I became aware of the raw power
and fine nuances of it.  Realizing it for myself was enough, but of course at times there were close
calls to show me the diligence of attention you must show fire. Someone we knew well was once burned
badly in an accident.  My fathers best friend was lost to a house-fire and i guess thinking back on it,
his death may be the seed which has brought me along this journey.

Today, so long after my thoughts of a solution began, I see that the current path of wildfire suppression
is not improving so I must speak up and be heard on this topic.

My intentions have been to include sustainable raw materials any way possible into our lives.  From
everyday things like food, clothing and shelter, to more exciting things like automobiles, space-travel
and high technology. Being inspired by people like Henry ford, who made a car of vegetable plastic
and released it to the public in 1941. I know that great things are possible.

Now is the time to realize the possibilities of a revolutionary way to manage wildfire and other
open fire situations. Using currently available resources and technologies, I know we can upgrade
our fire management systems and step out of the dark ages.

I have looked recently into the new ways and theories of wildfire management, so I know what the
trend and thinking is.  What is needed now is to simply bring together ideas and the appropriate
materials and achieve a more viable solution.

I would like to spearhead a project do just this. I do have the revolutionary ideas I speak of.
I need funding to test my ideas and bring them to life.  Of course a company venturing into this
has to potential to capitalize very well, but the overall benefits to people and environment are
unmeasurable when you factor in other benefits.

Feel free to contact me to discuss this further.
Jeremy, 213.572.7351

Reply to this comment

By Rick Lewis (Oregon, OH)
on September 30th, 2014

Jeremy, can you provide an email.  I have something I would like to sent you.

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