Wildland Fire Mitigation Considered Cost-Effective

The cost of suppressing wildfires in the U.S. exceeded $1 billion in 2000 and will do so again in 2002. Annually, appropriations for the National Fire Plan, the philosophical and policy foundation for federal and interagency fire management activities, have surpassed $2 billion, and additional money is spent on many other fire programs. These costs have increased dramatically in recent years, due in part to a buildup of hazardous fuels that feed the fires, increased home construction in fire-prone areas, and severe drought.

Some see the current method of paying for wildfire suppression as a blank check with no incentive to reduce losses of life and property. As appropriated funds are tapped out, agencies simply borrow from other funds and then expect the monies to be replenished. However, programs that focus on mitigation, such as hazardous fuels reduction, community vulnerability assessment, increased firefighter preparedness, and restoration of burned areas, often remain well within their budgetary limits.

A panel from the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) has found that only through cooperation, sharing responsibilities for fire suppression, and working with incentive programs, will wildland fires come to be managed more cost-effectively. The panel examined federal wildfire assistance to state and local governments, and offered steps to better prepare federal, state, local, and tribal officials to work together. Studies of six large fires from 2001 formed the basis for the panel’s findings and recommendations. Each fire situation illustrated a different story about firefighting strategies, tactics, and costs.

NAPA concluded that successful fire suppression is more than a one-year, single-incident proposition and that significantly containing rising costs will require a long-term vision and policies that address the root causes of fire hazards. Agencies working at all levels of government must strike at the main, underlying causes of wildland fires in order to more effectively control the escalating costs of firefighting and reduce the costs of property damage. Strategies recommended by the academy for suppression include a comprehensive fuels reduction strategy; increased community responsibility; incident management efficiency and accountability; and the cost-effective application of science, technology, and information management. Ultimately, intergovernmental, fully integrated programs that center on fuel management and hazard reduction in communities and that rely on coordinated land management focusing on mitigation and ecological improvement will both decrease suppression costs and spread them among larger numbers of stakeholders.

The academy report is comprised of two free, on-line volumes. The shorter report, Wildfire Suppression: Strategies for Containing Costs (2002, 77 pp., free), provides the panel’s recommendations, and the longer volume, Background and Research Report (2002, 462 pp., free), provides the case studies and other research on which the panel based its recommendations.

Both volumes are available from the National Academy of Public Administration, 1100 New York Avenue, N.W, Suite 1090 East, Washington, DC 20005; (202) 347-3190; http://www.napawash.org.

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