Fighting wildfires economically complex, says WSU researcher

By Scott Weybright, College of Agricultural, Human & Natural Resource Sciences

wildfire-treesPULLMAN, Wash. – Fighting wildfires is expensive. Firefighters must be paid and equipment must be purchased and transported to fires. Operations and maintenance cost money.

And, as residential development near urban areas increasingly mixes with forest land, fires threaten more homes and potential damage increases.

Jonathan Yoder

According to a recent paper by Washington State University professor Jonathan Yoder and colleague Dean Lueck at the University of Arizona, the incentives to lower those costs are out of balance, and the researchers are working to understand the sources of the incentive problems.

On the firefighting side, Yoder, an economist in WSU’s School of Economic Sciences, said fire suppression can be expensive and inefficient. For example, helicopters that fly over a fire and dump tankers full of fire suppressant are hugely expensive and not terribly effective.

“They’re called ‘CNN drops,’ because they make great visuals for television,” Yoder said. “But from an economic perspective, they’re often inefficient.”

Another reason costs are high is because it’s not politically feasible for elected officials to allow emergency response funds to run out.

“The reality is, it’s bad politics to limit resources for fighting a fire just because of budget constraints,” Yoder said. “So agencies often go over budget, and they know they effectively have a blank check.”

Landowners who build in natural areas often have little incentive to spend more to reduce their risk of wildfires. Most property insurance covers loss from wildfires, and owners have access to public firefighting services with no direct cost to them, Yoder said. Both factors reduce property owners’ incentives to manage risk before fires start.

Wildfire management experts must often decide where to focus their resources: saving these isolated homes or managing large stretches of unpopulated wilderness to reduce wildfire risks.

The paper, published in the May 2015 edition of the Journal of Forestry, focuses mainly on the history of how these imbalances came to be, but Yoder hopes to further explore how to fix the imbalances in the future.

“These incentives are really unbalanced, and addressing these incentive problems can reduce the overall costs of wildfire,” he said.

One method for balancing the incentives is to get more serious about planning and balancing risk in new developments near urban areas.

“Some new developments now require permits about plant life nearby,” Yoder said. “And in some places, insurance companies will reduce premiums if homeowners reduce their fire risk, like removing vegetation near their homes.”

On the bureaucratic side, Yoder said the Obama administration is working to move wildfire budgeting for suppression of large fires under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and out of the U.S. Forest Service budget.

“That would allow the Forest Service to invest more in reducing fire risks, while letting FEMA emergency funds pay for fighting the largest, most expensive fires,” Yoder said.

In addition to this paper, Yoder is a member of a team working on “Hazards SEES – Advancing Resilience to Compounding Disasters: An Integrated Natural-Human Systems Assessment of Wildfire Vulnerability,” which is funded by a $2.8 million National Science Foundation grant. Yoder will provide an economic viewpoint for this grant based out of the University of Idaho.

The main goal of this project is to support policy making and other decision-making processes at local, regional and national scales to reduce the risk of wildfire becoming a disaster and to increase community and ecological adaptive capacities.
Jonathan Yoder, WSU School of Economic Sciences, 509-335-8596,