Solutions to the Rising Costs of Fighting Fires in the Wildland-Urban Interface
A principal reason for the escalating cost of wildland firefighting is the growing number of homes being built in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). This fact has been quantified and demonstrated repeatedly, yet most proposed solutions to hold down or reduce fire suppression costs fail to address it. Suggested fixes—such as increased coordination among agencies and educating homeowners how to live more appropriately near fire-prone lands—are focused on increasing the safety of existing residences in the WUI, but lack the means to control future costs and may unintentionally have the effect of increasing residential growth and subsequent fire suppression costs near fire-prone lands. This paper offers ten ideas for controlling the rising cost of protecting homes from wildland fires. They are:
- Publish maps identifying areas with high probability of wildland fires.
- Increase awareness of the financial consequences of home building in fire-prone areas.
- Redirect federal aid towards land use planning on private lands.
- Add incentives for counties to sign firefighting cost share agreements.
- Purchase or obtain easements on fire-prone lands.
- Create a national fire insurance and mortgage program to apply lessons from efforts to prevent development in floodplains.
- Allow insurance companies to charge higher premiums in fire-prone areas.
- Limit development in the wildland-urban interface with local zoning ordinances.
- Eliminate home interest mortgage deductions for new homes in the wildland-urban interface.
- Induce federal land managers to shift more of the cost of wildland firefighting to local governments by reducing their firefighting budgets.
The pros and cons of each idea are explored, along with a discussion of the likelihood that each idea will succeed in controlling future firefighting costs.
To succeed, several ideas will have to be applied concurrently, and they will require government support and direction. The tremendous scale of the problem (in terms of acres, ownership complexity and cost) means that federal government will have to play a role. The involvement from Congress and the federal agencies is also important because the current system of incentives is part of the problem. By spending large sums every year to protect homes from wildfires, the federal government is subsidizing the true cost of development. Without financial disincentives to building homes on dangerous, fire-prone lands, the problem will get worse.
At the least, the proposed solutions presented here should begin a public dialogue on the need for policies that will decrease the future cost of protecting homes from wildfires. At the best, the ideas offer an array of options for the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Congress to explore and adopt.