Wildfire Economics: Should the Public be Involved in Determining Damages?


Cascade Complex Fire at night. Picture taken August 8th, 2007, near Warm Lake, Valley County, Idaho. Photo by US Forest Service, provided courtesy of the Yellow Pine Times. Photographer unknown.

I worked with John Marker, a semi-regular contributor to this blog, and several others in putting together a pre-fire and post-fire analytical tool nearly five years ago. It was widely distributed and presented (and generally well received) to several key agencies and organizations through three fire seasons, but has gone nowhere: http://www.wildfire-economics.org/Checklist/index.html

Our intent was to develop a tool (“the one-pager”) so that local residents, landowners, and newspaper reporters could also be involved in gathering and interpreting data related to short-term and long-term costs of wildfires. By attaching their own values to the analysis it was thought that more realistic and widespread understanding of these events could take place over time and geographical location — both individually and collectively.

Our group formed a non-profit to build the mostly-completed informational website (http://www.wildfire-economics.org/) and to help develop this concept on a practical basis. We made two or three determined attempts to test this approach on and before specific fires at that time, but there was “no funding” available — even from the American Heart and Lung Association! People seemed more concerned with diesel exhausts and smoke-flavored wine grapes in California than in doing anything practical about considering actual wildfire damages to the environment, to their local communities, and to public health.

Now might be a better time for reconsidering this proposal, at least on a trial basis. People have seemingly been catching onto the “natural fire return interval” myth and other agency rationales for this unprecedented spate of catastrophic wildfires, and seem to finally begin questioning the “science” behind federal wildfire management policies the past quarter century (since 1987).

This issue is not going away anytime soon, despite political posturing and the claims of some environmental organizations. It is not a “climate change” issue anymore than it is a “natural process” issue. It is a resource management issue, as shown convincingly by the photographs of Derek Weidensee in this blog, and by the research findings of several forest and fire scientists and historians, including my own.

Unfortunately, the media has only lately begun realizing the flimsiness of the claims of the “natural fire” proponents and much of the public has continued to remain ignorant or misinformed on these issues as a result. Now might be a good time to begin substituting personal observations for past agency and media pronouncements and to begin taking the active management approaches needed to bring these predictable events under control.

There is no real reason to continue down this wasteful and destructive — and largely self-inflicted — path too much longer. Maybe the “one-pager” can begin to serve its intended purpose of helping to bring informed and afflicted citizens to the table.


4 thoughts on “Wildfire Economics: Should the Public be Involved in Determining Damages?”

  1. There is a good reason this methodology has gone nowhere. It’s heavily biased toward counting losses while failing count the many benefits of natural disturbance processes, such as fuel reduction, habitat diversity, nutrient cycling. Reading the narrative descriptions of the “costs of fire to “vegetation” and “wildlife” provide glaring examples of such one-side accounting.

    • Tree: Thank you for the feedback. Our article is clearly titled “cost-plus-loss” and was specifically focused on determining the damages done by wildfire — not create a balance sheet. Many others have tried to enumerate and quantify the “values” of wildfire, and they rarely touch upon the damages (other than fire suppression costs). Our intent was to provide a balance to those assertions, and leave the conclusions — and balance sheet accounting — to others.

      My personal experience, nearly 25 years, is that any of the “positive” values ascribed to wildfire can be easily duplicated at far less cost, risk, mortality, and damage via human-ignited prescribed fires. Yes, there are escapements at times, but often these can be tied to poor fuel preparation and/or poor fire management decisions. I’m not sure what a “natural disturbance process” is, exactly, but my research has shown people as the most regularly disturbing presence in most environments, including forests.

    • I tend to think that we can do “fuel reduction” better and safer than wildfires. We can also diversify habitats with more reliable results than just hoping that wildfires don’t burn too hot. I also think that “catastrophic” nutrient cycling can be done better than wildfires and the floods they often bring. Prescribed fires can provide enough “nutrient cycling”.

      Many are “failing (to) count the many benefits of” site-specific and well-designed land management projects.

  2. Tree – fires over a several thousand contiguous acres do not create diversity. They create huge homogenous stands. Sound forest management that is paid for by selling products can produce both homogeneity where appropriate and at a desired scale while also creating the diversity/heterogeneity necessary where appropriate and also serve the especially necessary function of minimizing the extent of catastrophic occurrences that destroy entire forest ecosystems from the microbes in the soil to the mammals in the tree tops.

    You can’t have it both ways by filing lawsuits to prohibit the taking any possibly threatened species that has the opportunity to move out of the way of a controlled burn or temporary disruption caused by logging and then when a catastrophic wildfire wipes out a whole ecosystem on a large chunk of land, just say ‘oh well’. Don’t you see the contradiction in such a position? Controlled burns provide properly timed fuel reduction and nutrient recycling without nearly the collateral damage of the catastrophic fires that result from “nature only” non-management. So, as Bob says, the facts are that the benefit side of your equation just went away.


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