More On the Real Costs of Forest Fires

The Santa Barbara Independent reported last week that two “trail gnomes” were charged with starting the Jesusita Fire last Spring [here].

More than seven months after the Jesusita Fire scorched nearly 9,000 acres of the Santa Barbara front country — destroying 80 homes, damaging another 15, seriously injuring numerous firefighters, and costing $17 million in its wake — two men have been charged in connection with the start of the fire.

The SBI also reported that prosecutors will “seek restitution” from the suspects.

What prosecutors do intend to do, however, is seek restitution on behalf of the victims of the Jesusita Fire, a pricetag that’s floating in the millions of dollars, considering the injured firefighters and destroyed homes.

That price tag has not been fully calculated, but one thing is for sure, the costs and losses from the fire vastly exceed the suppression expenses (which were closer to $18.6 million, not $17 million [here]).

In other news, mudslides resulting from the Station Fire [here] are threatening roads and homes in Los Angeles [here]:

As many as 90 vehicles were stranded after rocks and mud flowed down the hillside amid heavy rains along a 12-mile stretch of Angeles Crest Highway north of Los Angeles in an area where a massive wildfire burned earlier this year, said county fire Capt. Frank Reynoso.

The suppression costs of the Station Fire approached $100 million, but the damages (which are on-going) have not been appraised as yet. The damages, which include hospitalizations from excessive smoke, exceed the suppression costs many-fold.

In other news, the City of San Francisco settled a lawsuit brought by the US Justice Dept. on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service for two small fires on the Stanislas NF in 1999 and 2004. The price tag: $7 million [here]:

The city of San Francisco has paid $7 million to settle federal claims for wildfire damage to a national forest allegedly caused by negligent maintenance of power line rights of way.

The 1999 Pilot fire and the 2004 Early fire burned 5,698 acres in the Stanislaus National Forest in Tuolumne County.

The fires resulted from trees growing too close to the high-voltage power transmission lines of Hetch Hetchy Water and Power, owned by San Francisco, according to two civil lawsuits brought by the federal government against the city and its utilities agency.

What do these news items have in common? They all provide unimpeachable evidence that forest fires cause damages far in excess of suppression costs.

In a report posted at the W.I.S.E. Colloquium: Forest and Fire Sciences (Zybach, Bob, Michael Dubrasich, Gregory Brenner, and John Marker. 2009. U.S. Wildfire Cost-Plus-Loss Economics Project: The “One-Pager” Checklist. Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, Advances in Fire Practices, Fall 2009, [here]), the authors aver:

Official Forest Service tallies usually include suppression expenses only.  Media reports sometimes include estimates of damage to homes and infrastructure.  But the economic impacts of wildfires are far-reaching and new (and old) research shows the need for improved cost estimates of wildfire.

Large wildfires consume more than just suppression expenses (“costs”) – they also do measurable short- and long-term damages (“loss”) to public and private equity and resources.  Traditional fire appraisal uses the term “cost-plus-loss” to account for all the economic impacts of wildfire.  This econometric analysis method is sometimes expressed as LCD (least cost plus damage) or C+NVC (costs plus net value change).  The goal (economic utility) of fire suppression is to minimize cost-plus-loss.

Recently analysts, government officials, and the media have drawn increasing attention to the escalating frequency, severity, and costs over and above fire suppression associated with large-scale forest wildfires  – including losses of human lives, homes, pets, crops, livestock and environmental damage.

The Western Forestry Leadership Coalition issued a report last April: The True Cost of Wildfire in the Western U.S. [here] in which the authors noted:

The millions of dollars spent to extinguish large wildfires are widely reported and used to underscore the severity of these events. Extinguishing a large wildfire, however, accounts for only a fraction of the total costs associated with a wildfire event. Residents in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) are generally seen as the most vulnerable to fire, but a fuller accounting of the costs of fire also reveals impacts to all Americans and gives a better picture of the losses incurred when our forests burn.

A full accounting considers long-term and complex costs, including impacts to watersheds, ecosystems, infrastructure, businesses, individuals, and the local and national economy. Specifically, these costs include property losses (insured and uninsured), post-fire impacts (such as flooding, erosion, and water quality), air quality damages, healthcare costs, injuries and fatalities, lost revenues (to residents evacuated by the fire, and to local businesses), infrastructure shutdowns (such as highways, airports, railroads), and a host of ecosystem service costs that may extend into the distant future.

There is no doubt that wildfires inflict damages far and above suppression costs. There is also no doubt that the US Forest Service has been remiss in failing to consider total costs when planning and implementing fire suppression activities.

The USFS routinely allows wildfires to burn unchecked. Such fires are called “wildland fires used for resource benefit” (we call such fires whoofoos or foofurbs). At no time during the decision-making process that results in unchecked, uncontrolled wildfires allowed to burn freely does the USFS pause to consider the severe economic damages said fires inflict on America and Americans.

Examples of whoofoo/foofurb failures include (but are not limited to):

* Warm WFU Fire (2006, Kaibab NF, 58,460 acres) – A lightning-ignited fire was designated WFU and allowed to burn until winds came up and the fire exploded into old-growth pine stands.  Some 40,000 acres of habitat for the Mexican spotted owl were destroyed in direct defiance of a court order NOT to let burn those stands (a legally binding Decision Notice had been issued by a federal judge and acknowledged by the Forrest Supervisor).  An EIS was required for rehabilitation actions (which have not yet been initiated) although not for burning the forest in the first place.  Damages were over $70 million.  Rehabilitation will cost additional tens of $millions.  No spotted owls live there now, nor will they ever again.

* Clover WFU Fire (2008, Sequoia NF, Inyo NF, 15,000 acres) — The Clover WFU Fire began with a lightning strike May 31 that fizzled in a few acres.  It could have been extinguished for a few thousand dollars, but the Clover Fire was only “monitored” until it blew up into a 15,000 acre wildfire that burned all the way to Hwy 395 and threatened homes in Kennedy Meadows.  It eventually cost over $8 million to suppress.  Homeowners dozens of miles from the ignition point were evacuated.

* South Barker WFU Fire (2008, Sawtooth NF, 38,583 acres) — The South Barker WFU Fire escaped and burned 38,583 acres.  The fire eventually cost over $7 million to suppress.  It incinerated miles of riparian zones, stripped erodable hillsides of vegetation, and destroyed forest plantations that had been carefully tended for 50 years.

* Gunbarrel WFU Fire (2008, Shoshone NF, 67,141 acres ) — The Gunbarrel WFU Fire was allowed to burn until it blew up.  The fire eventually cost over $11 million to suppress.  An estimated 420 residences, 11 commercial buildings, and 149 outbuildings were threatened and 7 buildings destroyed.  The highway leading to Yellowstone Park was closed, and numerous residents were evacuated.  During the fire USFS officials proudly declared that the MMA (Maximum Manageable Area, or desired incineration zone) was 417,000 acres (652 sq miles) and included public and private properties north and south of Highway 14.

* East Slide Rock Ridge WFU Fire (2008, Humboldt-Toiyabe NF, 54,549 acres) — The ESRR WFU Fire was allowed to burn unchecked until it blew up and threatened the community of Murphy Hot Springs, ID, as well as numerous rural ranches and farms.  The fire eventually cost over $9 million to suppress.  Riparian zones adjacent to stream habitat for endangered bull trout were incinerated.

* Mill Flat WFU Fire (2009, Dixie NF, 12,607 acres) – The Mill Flat WFU Fire was monitored until it blew up.  The fire roared into New Harmony, Utah, forced the evacuation of 170 New Harmony residents, destroyed three homes and damaged eight buildings.  The fire eventually cost over $6.5 million to suppress.

In practice the USFS has repeatedly lost control of wildfires “used for resource benefit”.  Resources have suffered enormously as a result.  The notion that fire use fires are controllable and the USFS can limit such fires to hastily approved acres is contradicted by their established record “using” fires.

Interestingly, in none of these whoofoo/foofurb fires has the USFS specified exactly what the alleged benefits of “fires used for resource benefit” are. There have been no analyses made, no declarations, no public hearings, and most importantly, no Environmental Impact Statements produced.

Nor has there ever been any USFS analysis of cost-plus-loss following “Allow To Burn” wildfires.

The USFS continues to obfuscate and ignore the real costs of wildfires, unless they can sue some outside-the-agency perpetrator, in which case cost-plus-loss economic damages are highlighted in the depositions and evidence they submit to Federal courts [here].

The USFS wants it both ways. They want to sue, sue, sue to recover cost-plus-loss damages from others, but they encase themselves in a Cone of Silence when it comes to the wildfires they promulgate.

The Agency could be doing a better job. The approach they use today seems to be rather hypocritical and even fraudulent, as in financial fraud.

We the citizenry are not well-served by a government that burns our forests and towns with impunity, with total reticence about the damages the government knows are occurring, and then sues us for those damages when the opportunity arises.

It’s called a double standard, and it sucks to high heaven.

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