Letters From the West

Forest development presents growing costs for firefighting

Most of the money spent in Idaho last year to fight wild fires went to protecting communities like Featherville, Sunbeam, Stanley and Idaho City.
And every scientific look at the future of wild fire in Idaho and the West predicts larger fires, longer fire seasons as the summers become hotter and drier. Even if every acre of Idaho’s front-country forests, those outside the roadless and wilderness areas, were managed like private or state forests, the overall climatic conditions are expected to burn more forests.
Add to that the continued development of homes and cabins into the forests and the costs of firefighting will continue to grow. Protecting private property from forest fires account for 50 percent and 95 percent of all firefighting costs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General reported.
A new study by Headwaters Economics shows that 84 percent of private lands near public forests in the West today are undeveloped. This means over the next 50 years the costs of firefighting could explode due to development even if we turned every possible public forest into a managed plantation.
In Idaho the greatest potential for development growth is up north in Shoshone and Clearwater counties. Already the areas around Coeur d’ Alene, Sandpoint and Bonner’s Ferry have become Mecca’s for second home development because of people love for living in the forest.

Valley and Boise counties, which Headwaters says are the 9th and 11th highest potential for forest development in Idaho, have already had their share of big fires. Forest scientists say that because of lightning strikes these forests will continue to see lots of starts even as firefighters stop 98 percent of the fires that burn before they get big.
In 2012 the federal and state governments paid an estimated $220 million in 2012 to fight fires in Idaho. Most of this was spent in southern Idaho, more than $120 million with the Boise National Forest and Salmon-Challis National Forest carrying the highest firefighting price tag.
National wildfire fighting costs have averaged $1.8 billion annually for the past five years, and the 2012 fire season was among the worst on record for many regions and states costing more than $2 billion.
The Headwaters Economics study found that only 16 percent of the available private land in western forests is already developed. If just people build homes and cabins on half of these lands in the future, Headwaters Economics predicts annual firefighting costs could grow to between $2.3 and $4.3 billion.
Headwaters released its study to encourage states and local governments to zone these areas like flood plains to discourage development of what are primarily second homes because of the costs to taxpayers.

Ray Rasker is senior economist for Headwaters Economics.

Ray Rasker is senior economist for Headwaters Economics.

“The fundamental challenge is that those who permit and build homes on fire-prone lands—county commissioners, developers, and homeowners—do not bear their proportional cost of defending these homes from wildfires,” said Ray Rasker, chief economist of the Bozeman-based group. “We would see a much different pattern of development in the West if the federal government shifted the financial responsibility of defending homes to local governments and those who build homes on fire-prone lands.”

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West