Land-Use Decisions Have Big Consequences for Cost of Fighting Wildfires
When homes are far from the nearest neighbor, the cost of fighting wildfires goes up – way up. A University of Wyoming study says clustering homes and other structures that are at risk of wildfire damage could slash the cost to the public of protecting them.
Anna Scofield spent 10 years as a wildland firefighter before taking up research on “sprawl” in the wildland-urban interface. She learned firsthand protecting homes from fire is dangerous and expensive.
Building houses far apart and beyond town—the wildland-urban interface—increases firefighting costs in the Rocky Mountain West because firefighters shift from simple fire containment to structure protection, she said, adding that the cost of full suppression is significantly higher. Widely dispersed developments and isolated homes also require more resources to protect than homes clustered in one area.
“Solutions to rising costs must address that reality,” Scofield said. (See the report on Forest Service firefighting expenses.)
For her master’s research at the University of Wyoming, Scofield set about quantifying her observations. Working with a team of agricultural economists and natural resource specialists, she used data from 291 wildfires in Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming from 2002 to 2011. They found a single isolated home can add $225,000 to overall firefighting costs, while a home within a dense cluster can contribute as little as $100.
The U.S. Forest Service bears most of the cost of suppression but has no control over residential development, which is the responsibility of local governments.
University of Wyoming Extension and the Open Spaces Initiative at the university published “Residential Development Effects on Firefighting Costs in the Wildland-Urban Interface” by Scofield and others. The authors suggest strategic land use planning can reduce wildfire suppression costs by increasing firefighting efficiency.
“The results provide important fodder for policy debates surrounding the wildland-urban interface, especially in the West where private property rights are closely guarded,” said Associate Professor Don McLeod.
Land-use decisions at the town and county levels have major consequences for federal wildland fire management, reported Scofield.
“Our research offers local governments a middle ground between legislation that ignores the increased suppression costs of development in the wildland-urban interface and policies that exclude that development altogether,” she said.
According to the report, the dramatic rise in firefighting costs over the last decade is due in part to the growth of residential development in the wildland-urban interface.
The Wyoming Open Spaces Initiative supports Wyoming citizens’ conservation of open spaces through research, information, education and decision-making assistance, according to its website. Its research explores agricultural sustainability, community planning and development, wildlife and other cultural, economic and environmental issues.
The initiative is a collaborative effort of the University of Wyoming Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources, the Wyoming Geographic Information Science Center, the Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics, the Department of Geography, University of Wyoming Extension and the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database.
“Residential Development Effects on Firefighting Costs in the Wildland-Urban Interface” is also available for download.
Chavawn Kelley is a communications and technology writer and editor at University of Wyoming Extension.