Counting the full cost of wildfires
Published July 14, 2010 | July 2010 issue
A firefighting crew gathers at the Ham Lake fire in Minnesota in 2007.
Firefighting costs, the focus of this article, amount to a small portion of the economic costs of wildfires. This is especially true for big wildfires that rage out of control, consuming vast expanses of forest and burning private property. Estimates of the total cost of large wildfires to landowners, investors and taxpayers range from 10 to 50 times the cost of fire suppression. Wildfire experts and economists generally divide actual wildfire costs into three categories:
Direct costs. These are values directly consumed by flame or related to controlling and managing fires. They include suppression expenditures, damage to homes, public infrastructure and personal property, burned timber, lost business revenues, and the expense of evacuating residents and treating the injured.
Indirect costs. These are typically unaccounted for in government audits and media reports. Examples are firefighting readiness expenses such as crew training and equipment maintenance, fire insurance premiums (paid in anticipation of fire), lost investments in reforestation and other natural resource management, and degraded recreational value.
Post-fire costs. Long-term damage to the economy and the environment may not become apparent for years. Lingering effects of wildfires include declines in the capital value of timberland, reduced property tax revenue, chronic illness due to smoke exposure, increased soil erosion, and ongoing salvage, repair and rehabilitation costs.
When all of these costs are added up, the economic toll exacted by wildfires can be staggering. The Ham Lake fire in Minnesota in 2007 cost about $11 million to extinguish. Assuming conservatively that suppression expense amounted to roughly 10 percent of total costs, the full cost of that blaze—just one of thousands that burned in the district that year—likely will exceed $100 million over time.
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