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.

20 thoughts on “Is Private Property the Key to Keeping Firefighting Costs Down?”

  1. The increasing number of WUI homes in CA may explain their sky-rocketing figures. See here for WUI expansion figures across the U.S. Pretty solid argument for the increasing cost.

      • The linked report provides only a single snapshot, thus not evidence for an “expansion” of the WUI over time. Anyone got California’s WUI data for 1990?

        • Oh my gosh, Andy, I don’t know about California, but when we were working on Roadless in Colorado we had a meeting where everyone (different agencies and interest groups) brought their WUI maps and there were a plethora of different ones, with different mapping, assumptions, definitions and so on. Maybe somewhere people have done things in a consistent comparable way, but I would be careful.

            • That may be (that that paper has been cited 750 times), but the folks at our meeting sounded more like this (Greg Aplet of the Wilderness Society was at some of these meetings).

              Here’s the summary of the paper:

              Maps of the wildland– urban interface (WUI) are both policy tools and powerful visual images. Although the growing number of WUI maps serve similar purposes, this article indicates that WUI maps derived from the same data sets can differ in important ways related to their original intended application. We discuss the use of ancillary data in modifying census data to improve WUI maps and offer a cautionary
              note about this practice. A comparison of two WUI mapping approaches suggests that no single map is “best” because users’ needs vary. The analysts who create maps are responsible for ensuring that users understand their purpose, data, and methods; map users are responsible for paying attention to these features and using each map accordingly. These considerations should apply to any analysis but are especially important to analyses of the WUI on which policy decisions will be made.”

              I think Radeloff is the same author as the paper you cited. This was the take- home message from the meeting I attended- I shared because I thought these views were relevant to any analysis of WUI especially across time and/or space.

  2. 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?

  3. 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

  4. 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.

      • Hmm. The city of Colorado Springs and Douglas County also have contracts for this thing.. but they are small governments.. is that micro-bezzling? Or corruption because the tanker is local?

    • 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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