Bipartisan group seeks to tally true costs of wildfires

June 18, 2021
In The News

So what do wildfires really cost?

Sure, the Forest Service now spends between $2 billion and $4 billion each year fighting fires. But how about the buildings the flames consume, the watersheds they destroy, the heat-trapping gases they waft into the atmosphere, the fatal asthma attacks they provoke and the economic dislocations they create?

Fact is, we’re not sure.

That’s why it’s possible for the Arizona Corporation Commission to refuse to require power companies to generate enough energy from biomass to sustain the thinning of four million acres of Arizona forests.

That’s why it’s possible for towns like Show Low and Payson to refuse to adopt a fire-adapted building code — because it might add too much to the cost of a house.

And that’s why the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative has thinning about 15,000 acres per year for the past decade instead of 50,000.

So now a bipartisan group of congressmen led by Rep. Tom O’Halleran, who represents most of north-eastern Arizona, have introduced legislation to direct the federal government to tally up those costs, which could shape federal policy in unexpected ways.

“Last year, 2,620 wildfires burned over 978,000 acres in Arizona alone,” said Rep. O’Halleran, a member of the newly formed, bipartisan Wildfire Caucus. “These fires damaged homes, businesses, and claimed so many of our precious public lands and natural resources. This year, another active wildfire season has already begun. My bipartisan bill will instruct and enable federal agencies to get a holistic picture of the direct and indirect costs these fires have on our state, nation, and the families caught in the crossfire, so that we can better invest in the mitigation needed to address this problem head-on.”

Last year Western wildfires cost insurance companies as much as $13 billion in direct costs, according to a survey by Risk Management Solutions.

The 2018 wildfires in California alone cost the US economy $149 billion — which included $46 billion in costs outside of the state, according to estimates in another study published in Nature Sustainability. Some 8,500 fires burned thousands of homes, with capital losses and heath costs totaling $60 billion in California and industry disruptions within the state adding another $42 billion in losses. In 2018, 58,000 wildfires burned 9 million acres in the West.

The federal government in 2018 spent $3 billion on fighting fires, a cost that now consumes more than half of the total Forest Service budget. The costs not only reflect more giant fires, but a roughly 78-day increase in the fire season since the 1978s, according to the National Association of State Foresters. After years of scrambling each year to cover fire suppression costs — the Forest Service now sets aside $2.25 billion annually, with the amount increasing by $100 million annually until it tops out at $2.95 billion in 2027. But even that has proven insufficient in the past few years.

This year, a larger share of the west swelters in “exceptional” or “extreme” drought than in either 2018 or at the start of last year’s record wildfire summer. The extreme fire danger may ease in Arizona when the monsoon starts in July, but the fire season will likely expand into the fall in drought-stricken Colorado, California and Oregon.

“We on the Central Coast of California are seeing wildfire seasons turn into wildfire years, which comes with increasingly burdensome costs associated with responding to these emergencies,” said Congressman Jimmy Panetta who along with Republican Doug LaFalfa and O’Halleran sponsored the legislation on wildfire costs. “Our legislation will help communities like ours better prepare for these costs by funding a federal study that quantifies the direct and indirect financial impacts of wildfire response and recovery. Increasing this understanding and improving this analysis will help streamline wildfire response and preparedness, keeping our communities safe.”

The bill requires a study to establish estimates for direct costs, like wildfire mitigation and suppression, property damage, infrastructure damage, damage to ecosystems, infrastructure loss and emergency evacuation costs. The estimates must also consider indirect costs, like lost business revenue, lost tax revenue, property devaluation, housing market impacts and others.

Gathering those figures could have all kinds of impacts on state and federal wildfire policies.

For instance, the Arizona Corporation Commission has refused to require power companies to generate energy from burning biomass. The biomass mandate would transform the economics of the stalled 4FRI effort to thin millions of acres to dramatically reduce the risk of a town and watershed-destroying megafire. The Commission refused to adopt the rule on a 3-2 vote, arguing that electrical customers shouldn’t have to bear the extra cost of generating power from burning biomass – compared to natural gas, solar or wind power. However, that decision doesn’t take into account the potentially huge cost savings those same consumers would enjoy from preventing megafires.

The devastating wildfire years of 2018 and 2020 have finally caught the attention of Congress, although without much concrete effect so far.

An April hearing before the US House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands mostly featured the finger pointing and blame shifting, according to an account of the hearing on Colorado National Public Radio

Democrats stressed the need to boost the Forest Service budget and reduce the effect of climate change. Republicans mostly insisted the solution lies in more logging and controlled burns while insisting climate change is not a factor.

The deadlock has played out in Arizona, mostly in the shape of the decade-long struggle to find contractors who could thin the forest at minimal cost to taxpayers through 4FRI. A succession of contractors have largely failed to make a dent in the growing problem, mostly due to the economics of dealing with biomass. This downed and dead wood, brush and small trees averages about 50 tons per acre and represents roughly half of the material the loggers must process.