Wildfires: Cost of Building Homes in Harm’s Way

As the climate warms, there will be more, larger, hotter forest fires…&
they won’t distinguish between public & private lands…

ASW

—————————- Original Message —————————-
Subject: Cost of building homes in harm’s way
From: “Lance Olsen” <lance@wildrockies.org>
Date: Wed, May 14, 2008 10:26 am
To: “cmcr-outreach” <cmcr-outreach@vortex.wildrockies.org>
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“Big price to protect homes

“Suppressing wildfires in the wilderness-urban
interface accounts for 85 percent of firefighting
costs in the United States, according to the
report.”
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The Denver Post
Article Last Updated: 05/14/2008 12:16:43 AM MDT

Growing focus on fires leaves other
Forest Service programs withering
By Steve Lipsher

The U.S. Forest Service plans to spend $1.9
billion – nearly half of its annual budget – to
prevent and fight wildfires this summer.

That continues a trend that critics say is
turning the agency into primarily a firefighting
operation at the expense of other programs.

The $1.9 billion represents 45 percent of the
agency budget. In 2000, 20 percent of the budget
went to fire programs.

Between 2000 and 2008, the agency’s budget for
other programs declined 35 percent.

“It makes it pretty darn difficult for them to
maintain campgrounds or hire rangers when they’re
spending almost 50 percent of their budget on
fire suppression,” said Tom Fry, wildfire program
coordinator for The Wilderness Society in Denver.

The federal government has pledged $25 million to
Colorado to fight fires this year and another $35
million for fuel reduction and other
wildfire-prevention efforts, according to
regional forester Rick Cables.

Agency officials say that general inflation and
the rising cost of fuel for everything from air
tankers and helicopters to caterers and support
crews are driving much of the increase.

The Forest Service is required by federal law to
base its firefighting budget on the 10-year
average expenditures, officials said.

“The largest fire years we’ve had have been in
the last 10 years,” said Rose Davis, spokeswoman
for the National Interagency Coordination Center
in Boise, Idaho. “It seems like each year is a
record year or close to a record year.”

Last year, 9.3 million acres of forests burned
across the country – with 26,535 acres in
Colorado. That was just off the record of 9.8
million acres torched the previous year.

A change in tactics

Over the past 50 years, an average of 4.1 million acres have burned annually.

Prompted by an increased understanding of the
role fire plays in renewing forests, the Forest
Service has changed tactics from aggressively
fighting every fire as soon as smoke is detected
to allowing some naturally caused fires to burn
while being monitored.

“Even if we do get a natural ignition, one caused
by lightning, in a piece of the country where the
forest plan says it’s OK to allow fire, you’re
still going to put it out if you’ve got 40 mph
winds,” Davis said.

The changed approach enabled the agency to spend
$127 million less in 2007 than in 2006, Mark Rey,
the undersecretary of agriculture overseeing
national forests, said in Senate testimony in
February.

Throughout the West, a massive infestation of
bark beetles has left entire stands of weakened
or dead pines just a spark away from burning, and
development along forest boundaries continues
nearly unabated, complicating firefighting
priorities.

A Colorado Forest Service report released this
year said more than 300,000 homes are located on
the fringes of forests in the state, and that
number is expected to more than double by 2030.

“Protecting the wildland-urban interface is the
nation’s fastest- growing firefighting expense,”
the report said.

Big price to protect homes

Suppressing wildfires in the wilderness-urban
interface accounts for 85 percent of firefighting
costs in the United States, according to the
report.

Federal funding for efforts to build “defensible
spaces” around settlements has been cut from $148
million in 2000 to $80 million this year.

“They’re slashing resources for crucial fire
protection measures at the very same time that
the number of people whose homes and livelihoods
are at stake is soaring,” said Amy Mall, a senior
policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense
Council.

Prevention is more cost effective than trying to
protect communities threatened by wildfires, the
Wilderness Society’s Fry contends, and allows for
better management of the forests.

He noted that in the 10 counties along the Front
Range, fuel-reduction programs are estimated to
require $15 million a year for the next 40 years
– money that now is consumed by firefighting.

“Unfortunately, there’s going to be more work to
be done on the ground than we’ll ever have the
money for,” Fry said.

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