Is Private Property the Key to Keeping Firefighting Costs Down?

Regular readers know that the U.S. Forest Service’s firefighting expenses just keep going up. Some believe that a dramatic decline in federal land logging over the past 30 years is the reason. Others say long-term cycles of drought, while some blame increasing number of wildland/urban interface homes.

If federal land logging policies are to blame for rising firefighting costs, why have Cal Fire’s costs skyrocketed, too? Cal Fire provides fire protection services across 31 million acres in California, including over 7 million acres of private timberland, e.g., Sierra Pacific’s timberland holdings. Cal Fire doesn’t pay the freight for federal land fires.


  1. Andy, you’re the economist in this crowd. Wouldn’t we expect costs to go up? What do we pay for for firefighting- people’s time, overtime, motels, food, vehicles, planes (fire retardant :)), and such- all of which tend to go up?

    Couldn’t another reason be that WFU watching and maintaining are adding costs.. .Not sure that Calfire does this, though.

    I would bet that there are reports out there done by state legislatures/GAO or others that ask fire. agencies about their rising costs and ways to reduce them. Perhaps others are familiar with these?

  2. This would seem to be pertinent to the discussion as much of the mortality is fire-caused. I posted this a year or so ago.
    In California the results of a quarter century of non-maagement are revealed in the following statistics (Sources: USFS Gen Tech Report WO-91, Oct 2014, tables 10,33,34,35; USDA FIA custom search, and USFS annual cut and sold report). They illustrate the differences between private (well-tended) timberlands and national forest (virtually unmanaged) timberlands in that state.

    Ownership timberlands Avg. stand age Annual mortality Annual harvest CF/ac.
    million ac Yrs. CF/Ac. CF/Ac
    National Forest 9.1 106 46.7 5.7
    Private 7.4 64 18.6 46.7
    CF/ac.= Cubic Feet per acre

  3. Here’s an addendum to my 3:26 PM post.

    The table reveals these facts about the management of California’s timberlands:
    • National forest timber stands are nearly twice as old as those on private land.
    • Per acre harvest on national forest land is 12% of the harvest on private land.
    • Per acre mortality on national forest land is 155% higher than on private land.
    Private landowners harvest about 43% of the gross annual growth; removing weak, over-aged, and unhealthy trees thus preventing mortality. Only 17% of the annual growth dies.
    In contrast, the Forest Service harvests about 8% of the growth while 56% of the annual growth dies.
    The data indicate that prudent harvesting will result in healthier, drought-resistant forests, prevent mortality, and yield substantial economic and social benefits to the landowner and to society.

    • But universities costs are rising above inflation also, are they bezzling also, health care and so on? This seems a bit like name-calling rather than analysis. It also sounds like government screws things up, private corporations screw things up.. where does that leave us? Seems like a waterslide to despair.

      • The non-pejorative corollary to “bezzling” is that incentives matter. Designing incentives that help accomplish goals will prove the key to reining in sky-rocketing costs, whether in health care or firefighting. In both, decision-makers are insulated from the financial cost of their choices.

        PS: As for the Colorado Springs contract with the supertanker, “it doesn’t cost our citizens anything, unless we call upon it during a disaster.” Neither corruption nor bezzling (my new favorite word — thanks Eric!), just an adroit political move to appease locals.

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