Fire fighting costs require proactive approach
In our opinion
Spokane County Fire District 3 Fire Chief Bruce Holloway says last week’s 50-acre fire near Depot Springs Road cost an estimated $150,000–$200,000 to fight and contain.
That’s nothing compared to the over $1 billion already spent this year fighting more than 33,000 fires burning 3.4 million acres nationally, including 40 large wildfires from Arizona to Alaska. Among those are the Lodgepole and Beaver Creek fires in central Idaho, Big Windy Complex and Government Flat Complex in Oregon and the Conrad Lake fire in Washington.
That $1 billion figure is nearing the 10-year average of $1.4 billion, and just over halfway to last year’s $1.9 billion – and the fire season isn’t close to being done, with a lot of activity in Southern California taking place as late as October. So far, 963 homes and 30 commercial buildings have been destroyed, with 30 firefighters losing their lives nationally.
In an Associated Press story last week, Duke University Nicholas School of the Environment professor Norman Christensen said the intensity and number of fires, particularly in California, Colorado and Idaho, can be attributed to drought, which has impacted large portions of the country recently.
“But many of the fires have been in highly populated, wilderness-urban interface areas such as Colorado Springs, Sun Valley, Idaho; and the west slope of the Sierra Nevada. That adds greatly to costs since so many more resources are required to protect built structures,” Christensen added.
Christensen isn’t the only one who has observed that where man and land interact, resources and expenditures to protect man from wildfires goes up. A 2010 study by the Western Wildland Environmental Treatment Assessment Center found “values at risk increasing as human population grows in high hazard areas, and cost public agencies millions of dollars.”
The study also found the following:
• When public liability for fire protection is high, private landowners spend as little as possible on fuel treatment,
• Public resources focused in areas of public/private ownership lead to benefits for local residents near those ownerships and less resources for society at large,
• Regulating fuel stocks by limiting the amount of fuels that may accumulate on individual parcels has the greatest potential of improving the efficiency of fire risk management on landscapes with mixed ownership.
The first two are revealing, especially the second as an Arizona study shows insurance rates for everyone in that state rising because of homes built in wilderness-urban zones. The third we’ve known about for years since agencies like the Department of Natural Resources and local fire districts annually remind residents the best way to protect homes from fire is to remove fuel sources such as dead brush and clear roof tops of pine needles.
Yet land management discussions about best practices for limiting wildfires often revolve around entering forests to remove dead trees. Most fires in the deep woods are allowed to burn naturally, and don’t cost as much to combat because fewer resources are needed, whereas fighting fires near civilization has now topped $1 billion.
So what’s the answer?
First, if you choose to live in these wilderness-urban zones you foot the bill for firefighting, not the rest of us living in cities and towns with good fire services. This can be done through higher insurance premiums for landowners in these areas, or perhaps creation of localized land/forest management districts where residents pay into a pool similar to a homeowners association.
Better land management practices should be encouraged through existing programs, and incentives provided. Those programs also need to be fully funded, not chopped to protect programs benefiting only a few.
In short, we need to be more proactive to prevent wildfires, instead of waiting for the flames come.