The rising cost of wildfires: what have we learned from the past?

 The rising cost of wildfires: what have we learned from the past?

14 September 2016

published by

USA—   After reading an article about 4,000 California firefighters battling blazes in that state this month, my mind raced to the staggering costs created by wildfires. I began to peruse some statistics and discovered the costs were greater that I had imagined.

I started with a review of statistics from the National Weather Service. According to the National Weather Service, “From 2005 to 2014, wildfires resulted in 5.08B USD in total damages. Of that figure, 74.1M dollars came from damage to crops, and 5B dollars from property damage. That total damage cost makes wildfires the ninth most costly natural hazard in the National Weather Service’s reports.”

However, I realized that these costs were only for property damage and did not include suppression costs. I pulled some data from the National Interagency Fire Center about the additional costs to taxpayers for suppressing wildfires during the same period from 2005-2014 and realized that this cost added a whopping 14 B to the costs caused by wildfires. The total costs for property damage and suppression for these years was over 19 B. These costs do not take into consideration injuries and deaths of both civilians and firefighters caused by these disasters.

Data extracted from the National Interagency FireCenter

YEARFIRESACRESFOREST SERVICEDOI AGENCIESTOTAL200566,7538,689,389$524,900,000 $294,054,000 $818,954,000 200696,3859,873,745$1,280,419,000 $424,058,000 $1,704,477,000 200785,7059,328,045$1,149,654,000 $470,491,000 $1,620,145,000 200878,9795,292,468$1,193,073,000 $392,783,000 $1,585,856,000 200978,7925,921,786$702,111,000 $218,418,000 $920,529,000 201071,9713,422,724$578,285,000 $231,214,000 $809,499,000 201174,1268,711,367$1,055,736,000 $318,789,000 $1,374,525,000 201267,7749,326,238$1,436,614,000 $465,832,000 $1,902,446,000 201347,5794,319,546$1,341,735,000 $399,199,000 $1,740,934,000 201463,2123,595,613$1,195,955,000 $326,194,000 $1,522,149,000

Department of Interior agencies (DOI) are: Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management; National Park Service; and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

According to other research the economic impacts are much more far reaching and should include:

Replacement of lost facilities and associated infra-structure (cell phone towers, damaged water service, damaged phone and electrical infrastructure etc.)
Watershed and water quality mitigation
The long term effects of smoke on health/medical costs
Disaster relief costs
Unemployment insurance
Sensitive species and habitat restoration.
Lost business revenue
Lost tourism dollars

The real costs can be staggering. Thinking about these figures paints a bleak picture. So what can we do today to lessen these costs? More in-depth studies of the economic effects in the aftermath of wildfires would better equip policy makers to have a better understanding of the true costs of these disasters and the value of implementing mitigation measures before an event. However, this is just one part of the picture, perhaps additional studies could be conducted about how properly implemented mitigation measures can lessen these costs and damage. Some studies have shown that making Firewise® changes to the home itself and the landscape surrounding the home can make a difference in the survivability of the home.

The investment in time and money to take care of the little things around the home like cleaning debris out of the gutters and off the roof, removing wood mulch and wood piles away from the 5-10 foot zone around the home replacing vents, windows etc. and cleaning up trash (those treasures we just can’t do without) from immediately around the home can make a difference in the outcome during a wildfire disaster. This is money and time well invested implementing NFPA’s Firewise principles. You can also help your neighborhood work together as a Firewise Community continuing to make change year by year to your community. These changes over time can increase your neighborhood’s survivability. We can learn from the past and we can each implement solutions today that can make a difference.

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