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Environment & Energy Report

INSIGHT: Reducing Wildfire Risks and Damages the Smart Way

Oct. 22, 2019, 8:01 AM

The 21st century has seen enormous changes to the environment and society. One of the major changes has been the warming climate and society’s awareness of climate change.

The warming climate is contributing to an increase in wildfire activity across North America, and the severity of wildfires has increased. Fires are occurring earlier and later in the season, and localized droughts have contributed to more flammable vegetation.
Wildfires on their own may not pose a huge risk to society, but as society encroaches into undeveloped areas with higher wildfire hazards, the risk grows.

The geographic location where human development sprawls into a previously undisturbed environment is called the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). As the WUI grows, the chance of a wildfire destroying property and causing fatalities increases.

Once this transition zone is developed, it is interwoven with wildlands and the fire risk is high due to several reasons, including flammable vegetation, limited firefighting services, and reduced access. Between 1990 and 2010, the WUI has grown by 41%, and the primary drivers are changes in land use with climate amplifying the risk.

People Must Be Accountable

One downside of over emphasizing climate change as the driver of natural hazards is that it removes some of the responsibility on people to be accountable for their actions.

For example, “If climate change is the main driver then can I really do anything to protect myself?” However, throwing up one’s hands and doing nothing is a choice. It’s a decision that effectively implicates that no matter the action the fire risk will be the same, which is not true.

Thoughtful development that incorporates wildfire risk at multiple levels (e.g. individual, state, and federal) is needed. Given the increased risk of wildfires, now may be the time when laws need to be developed or re-interpreted to improve accountability to prevent future loss of lives and property.

Without raising awareness, individuals may unknowingly buy property and build out into a WUI, placing themselves and their house at risk. It may be beneficial for communities to legally require real estate agents to disclose fire risks as they would flood risks. Assessing and bringing awareness to wildfire hazards is a major first step toward safer development and in the long run can reduce risk.

Costs for suppressing wildfires in the Western U.S. have now exceeded more than $1 billion annually. Wildfire suppression costs in the WUI have also risen for local, state, and federal agencies. Some of the development into wildland areas is public infrastructure, but many are also private.

Who Is Responsible for Individuals Who Build in High-Risk Areas?

What happens when people knowingly build into high-risk areas or refuse to take actions to reduce their risk, thereby increasing the risk for others? This creates a moral hazard that must be addressed.

Currently in many states and towns this responsibility falls to the local or regional governments. Sometimes protection in risky places is funded by taxes paid by residents in less fire prone areas, and other times the issue is not addressed. Even though wildfires have the potential to be highly devastating, their odds of occurring are low, so people and governments might be willing to take the risk.

To further complicate who pays the bills, insurance companies do not always incentivize risk reduction actions such as those recommended by Firewise and FireSmart, a program in the U.S. and Canada respectively, that provides a list of actions residents can take to reduce their wildfire risk. These actions include removing flammable vegetation, placing rock or other material with low flammability around the base of your house, all of which cost money.

Some local governments provide vouchers to help offset these costs and perform Firewise inspections at no cost to the owner. However, insurance companies do not always reward homeowners with reduced rates when they take these proactive measures. Rather than avoiding dealing with difficult conversations of who pays for costs associated with wildfires in WUI, residents and governments need to work together to improve accountability and equity in cost distributions.

Proposed tools to reduce risks associated with wildfires include vegetation management, different strategies for land use and development, and changes to wildfire management. Given that expansion of development into wildland areas is the main driver of increased wildfire risk to humans, laws that help promote sustainable development and hold individuals and governments accountable are key to preventing loss of lives and infrastructure and controlling costs.

Providing a mix of carrots (reduced insurance costs or taxes) and sticks (taxes based on risk, legal requirements) is the best way forward to reducing wildfire risk, preventing loss of live, property, and saving costs in the long run.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Author Information

Jennifer Schmidt is an assistant professor of natural resource management and policy at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Schmidt’s research was funded by the National Science Foundation.