The bill continues to mount.
This year in California, savage fires killed 42 people and consumed thousands of homes near Santa Rosa — sweeping out of thick, drought-dried brush and scrub that hadn’t burned in decades.
The Rodeo-Chediski Fire burned more than 500,000 acres, consumed hundreds of homes and came within one ridge of consuming Show Low.
The Yarnell Hill Fire killed 19 firefighters and destroyed 150 homes, sweeping out of thick shrub that hadn’t burned in 50 years.
The 15,000-acre Schultz Fire near Flagstaff cost nearly $10 million to fight, but did as much as $146 million in total damage, including the effects of a flood that killed a 12-year-old girl. A study by Flagstaff revealed that if that same fire had burned on the slopes above the city, it would have done $1 billion in damage and wiped out downtown Flagstaff.
All these fires come against the backdrop of a terrifying rise in the cost of fighting wildfires nationwide.
So here’s the crucial question: Would we save money spent on fighting fires if we thinned millions of acres of fire-prone public land?
Probably — but it’s complicated — concluded a national study by researchers from Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Research Institute.
The federally commissioned study concluded a big increase in restoration projects would decrease the cost of fighting fires, reduce fire severity and save lives and property.
But large-scale thinning and treatments won’t pay for themselves if you just consider firefighting costs, the report concluded.
On the other hand, including all costs over a 20-year period makes thinning projects much more cost effective.
Moreover, a projected increase in droughts, temperatures and megafires will ensure thinning pays much bigger dividends in coming decades.
The report noted that about 1-2 percent of fires account for roughly 97 percent of the firefighting costs — the monsters that tear loose in extreme weather conditions like the Wallow, Rodeo-Chediski or Yarnell Hill fires. Just a 1 percent increase in those megafires would increase the acres burned by about 30 percent.
The Western Forestry Leadership Coalition reviewed a series of studies on long-term wildfire impacts and concluded the full cost of a wildfire is 2-30 times as much as the suppression cost.
Staggering cost of fires
That suggests the full toll of the fires fought this year alone could total $60 billion nationally.
Only a huge thinning effort like Four Forest Restoration Initiative can impact the number and extent of those megafires, the report concluded. Even then, the thinning projects produce the biggest benefit if undertaken before the forest grows so thick and sickly.
Even if a thinning project doesn’t completely eliminate firefighting costs, it will reduce the firefighting bill by a third and sharply reduce fire severity and damage, the report concluded.
Moreover, studies in Arizona and Colorado show that nearby thinning projects boost property values by about 10 percent. By the same token, nearby fires decrease home values by 20 to 30 percent.
A variety of factors could make thinning projects even more cost-effective in coming years.
For instance, currently only a handful of facilities can make money on the brush and small trees removed in thinning projects. The development of a small-wood industry will sharply reduce thinning costs.
In addition, firefighting costs soar as big fires approach subdivisions and towns. Fires near communities like Yarnell and Payson draw far more resources than fires burning far away from homes and structures.
The number of homes built in areas menaced by wildfires has increased dramatically in recent decades, usually without fire-adapted building codes or any means of clearing buffer zones to protect either the forest or the homes.
An estimated one-third of U.S. homes are currently built in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) — with 60 percent of the new construction occurring in that danger zone. Any future growth of towns like Payson and Show Low will take place in that WUI zone, the most costly firefighting environment.
The steady increase of communities in the interface between the forest and the homes will drive further, dramatic increase in fire suppression costs — making the restoration projects even more cost effective.
Finally, the number of fires — especially megafires — will increase with the predicted rise in average temperatures.
In the Southwest, climate projections call for longer, more severe droughts and a lengthening of the peak fire season. Both those trends will also increase the benefits of the kinds of large-scale thinning projects that can reduce megafires.