MT, USA — Fighting fires in forested areas where more people are building homes will only get more expensive and dangerous in Montana and across the West, according to a report from a group of economists released Tuesday.
Headwaters Economics of Bozeman examined private land in the “wildland urban interface” – areas that abut fire-prone forests – in 11 Western states and found that 14 percent of it has been developed.
What worries Ray Rasker, the group’s director and lead economist, is what might happen if some, or all, of that remaining 86 percent is built up, especially given the increased costs of fighting wildfires in recent years.
“The problem could get so much worse,” Rasker said.
That risk ought to be a bigger part of the discussion for planning development, similar to how floodplains are viewed, he said.
“The West burns. Just like if you live in Florida you get hurricanes and in Kansas you get tornadoes,” Rasker said. “We’ve got to start thinking seriously about where homes are being built.”
Fire officials are worried about the number of people who have moved into those areas.
During the 1990s, 8.4 million homes were built in those Western wildland areas, accounting for roughly 60 percent of new homes constructed in the United States, according to a 2005 report from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, a group of federal agencies that deal with fire.
“It’s become increasingly rare that we have wildfires that don’t involve structures at some point,” said Randy Eardley, a spokesman for the agency.
That often means firefighting agencies spend more, and sometimes greater, risk, as they try to protect homes in areas that were previously undeveloped.
“It’s one of the tines on the fork that we’re dealing with more and more,” Eardley said. “Combine that with climate change, longer and more severe fire seasons, throw a lot of homes into that mix, it’s creating more and more challenges for us every year.”
From an economists’ point of view, the trend means more money spent on fires.
The U.S. Forest Service has estimated that the cost of protecting homes in wildland urban areas from fire may reach about $1 billion a year, Rasker said. Based on those estimates, costs could soar to $2.3 billion to $4.3 billion a year if half of the area is developed, he said.
“You’ve got firefighting costs suddenly that exceeds the entire budget of the Forest Service,” Rasker said. “It becomes the firefighting service.”
Montana has about 3,000 square miles of forested private land bordering public land, 91 percent of which has not been developed, according to the group’s analysis. Of the 31,394 homes in that area, about 24 percent are second homes or cabins, the report said.
Most of the risk is in Western Montana, though several Eastern counties, including Carbon, Gallatin, Park, Stillwater and Sweet Grass, also face significant risk.
As the number of homes in the wildlands continues to grow, there will be more effort to shift firefighting costs from the federal level to the states and counties, Rasker said.
That pressure may spur local governments not only to continue education efforts to create “defensible space” around existing homes in the wildland urban interface but also look more closely at including the risk of wildfire when planning future development, Rasker said.
“We say defend that 14 percent and think very seriously about what you want to do with that other 86 percent,” he said.