Wildfire in the West: What Does It Really Cost?

Wildfire in the West: What Does It Really Cost?

As wildfires rage across the west for another year, and the word “unprecedented” seems to lose its meaning, now is the time to pause and consider what the cost of all this is.

The true cost of wildfire exceeds the numbers in budgets and on paper, it goes beyond the prices of engines, equipment, and firefighting crews. The true cost includes the damage to individuals, ecosystems, and communities. These costs may begin accruing when a fire starts, but they continue far beyond containment. While the economic costs of wildfire, now measured in the billions of dollars, are often used to demonstrate the severity of wildfires in the west, it is worth also considering the human costs as western forestry leaders tackle one of today’s most important questions: where do we go from here?

The most commonly cited cost of wildfire is the suppression cost. This number captures only the immediate costs of a fire and its impact on the wildland-urban interface (WUI), including expenditures on aviation resources, engines, firefighting crews, and other personnel. These costs are easily quantified, frequently measured and carefully tracked, broken down, and debated in Congress. However, suppression costs represent only a portion of the total costs associated with wildfire. The total costs of wildfire can be broken down into broad categories: direct costs, rehabilitation costs, indirect costs (also known as impact costs), and additional or special costs.

Direct costs are those incurred during and immediately following a fire. This category includes the suppression costs of federal, state, and local agencies as well as private property losses, damage to utilities and recreation facilities, loss of marketable forest resources (timber), and aid to evacuees. 

Rehabilitation costs are those associated with rehabilitating the landscape to mitigate fire damage. Costs incurred in the immediate aftermath of a wildfire may be classified as direct costs, but rehabilitation is frequently required on a much longer timescale. Watershed restoration, for example, may take many years and be difficult to tie directly back to a wildfire event. As a result, these costs are often underestimated in relation to wildfire.

Indirect costs, or impact costs, have traditionally escaped accounting as these costs begin to accumulate long after the fire has been extinguished and rehabilitation efforts have begun. Indirect costs include lost tax revenue to counties, reduced business revenue, and prolonged decline in property values in areas affected by wildfire.

Additional costs, also known as special costs, is a catchall category for the qualitative costs that remain. While it is hard to put a value on a human life, insurance payouts for lives lost do make that possible. Human suffering as a result of trauma is more difficult to quantify but no less important to consider. Ongoing health problems as a long-term result of wildfire run the gamut from mental illness to chronic respiratory problems. The long-term impacts of the loss of ecosystem services can also be included in this category. Some of these services, from scenic viewsheds to the presence of wildlife, are inherently difficult to value exactly, but their loss as a result of wildfire is objectively costly.

The difficulty of assigning exact numbers to each of these cost categories, as well as the challenges related to multi-agency, cross-jurisdictional data gathering, puts lawmakers and resources managers in a bind. While they are responsible for wildfire budgeting and planning efforts, they are invariably working off incomplete information. Direct costs, the most easily known and quantifiable cost of wildfire, often account for only a small fraction of the total costs of a wildfire. The true cost is many times higher.

What can be done? There is an obvious need to shift wildfire funding away from a tunnel-like emphasis on suppression costs and to consider the costs of wildfire holistically. The wildfire funding fix, enacted for fiscal year 2020 through 2027, is a good step in this direction. As wildfires increased in intensity and duration over the last decade, the USDA Forest Service (Forest Service) was forced to spend increasingly large portions of its budget on suppression costs, crippling its ability to perform critical functions of a land management agency in terms of forest health and hazardous fuels reduction. The wildfire funding fix allows Congress to appropriate federal disaster funding to help the Forest Service cover suppression costs. This stabilizes the Forest Service’s budget and allows it to fund more programmatic work. Prior to the fire funding fix, the practice of fire borrowing was commonplace. Funding was taken directly from programmatic accounts to cover fire costs, leading to a negative feedback loop where suppression costs took precedence over preventative forest health work. 

Increasing funding for hazardous fuels reduction and other forest health efforts will minimize costs across the full spectrum of fire-associated impacts by reducing the severity of wildfires. While no amount of treatment can, or should, prevent fire entirely, active management can improve forest health and resiliency, reducing fire hazard and the associated costs of large fires, from the financial burden of direct costs to the qualitative losses of additional and special costs.

For more information on the cost of wildfire and how it is measured, please see the WFLC report “The True Cost of Wildland Fire in the Western US.”