Sunday, July 8, 2018

The True Costs of Wildland Fire - Updated 7-9-18

Tubbs Fire aftermath. Photo: San Francisco Chronicle
To "live with wildland fire" is at the core of the Cohesive Strategy vision. But to understand what that truly means for us in the West's fire prone environments, we must understand the full impacts and costs of wildland fire. 

State and federal agencies routinely capture costs and impacts in terms of dollars spent, houses and acres burned and sadly, lives lost. We now know however, that the true costs of wildland fire go far beyond those measurements.

Headwaters Economics approached this issue in their recent study of the Full Community Costs of Wildfire.  In summary, the report suggests:

  • Almost half of the full community costs of wildfire are paid for at the local level, including homeowners, businesses, and government agencies.
  • Many of these costs are due to long-term damages to community and environmental services, such as landscape rehabilitation, lost business and tax revenues, and property and infrastructure repairs.
  • By comparison, our analysis suggests suppression costs comprise around nine percent of total wildfire costs. The remaining costs include short-term expenses, or those costs occurring within the first six months—and long-term damages accruing during many months and years following a wildfire.
  • Communities at risk to wildfires can reduce wildfire impacts and associated costs through land use planning.

Review the Headwaters Economics full report here

In addition, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) released their review, Costs and Losses of Wildfire, in November 2017. This report enumerates all possible costs of wildfire management and wildfire-related losses as well as the economic burden of wildfire for the United States. 

The review includes an assessment of costs associated with:

  • preparedness  
  • mitigation
  • fuels management
  • suppression
  • legal and incarceration costs
  • research and development
  • deaths and injuries
  • psychological impacts
  • evacuation
  • structure loss
  • timber loss
  • burned area rehab
  • housing market loss
  • tax base loss

Read the full NIST review here

In April 2010, the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition and Council of Western State Foresters produced a report, The True Cost of Wildfire in the Western US. Using data from case studies of large fires in the 2000s, the report concludes that a range of total wildfire costs are anywhere from 2 to 30 times greater than the reported suppression costs. The report also makes recommendations for continued investment in active forest management, a fire funding fix, and development and implementation of the Cohesive Strategy.

Read the full WFLC/CWSF report here

These reports can be used to help stakeholders better mitigate potential losses and budget for the true costs of fire to avoid the painful trade-offs between fire mitigation and fire suppression. 

Update 7-9-18:

Since we first published this blog piece, Bob Zybach contacted us to share some work on this issue that he and others completed for the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center in 2009.  Take a look here. It includes a one-page check list that is intended to make initial estimates of total fire costs, and to ultimately be used in conjunction with a more comprehensive ledger for better tracking costs and losses over time. 


  1. My associates and I published a paper on the "true costs of wildfire" with the USDA Wildfire Lessons Learned Center in 2009, but were never able to get traction (or funding) to test the "one-pager" idea to involve affected citizens and interested observers. Here is the Internet version (no illustrations, 1/2 text) of the paper:

    Maybe now is a good time to reconsider this idea. Here is the academic version of the paper:

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  3. Thanks for updating this with my response -- much appreciated, but your link doesn't work. The link I sent works, but it isn't active. Thanks for following up on this topic!