The threat of wildfires across the United States has been on the rise over the last few years. Higher temperatures, climatic change, and lack of preparation are often reasons for a fire to escalate into a natural disaster.
This problem results in over 40 million of acres burned, thousands of buildings destroyed, and human lives lost just in the 2016-2021 period alone
In this article, we will take a deep look into the cost of fighting wildfires and what measures to take to reduce the risks that may lead to one. Likewise, we will explore measures and strategies implemented across different state levels to reduce wildfire costs.
The wildfire problem is an urgent matter for policymakers, firefighting agencies, and taxpayers. Understanding the causes will allow for better resource allocation, better land management practices, and fewer risks of dealing with a massive disaster.
Rising Fire Trends and Associated Costs
The amount of wildfires is continuously increasing in the United States, and the intensity is worrying. Per year, each fire leaves economic consequences, property loss, infrastructure destruction, and many more problems.
What Does Recent Data Say About the Increasing Number of Wildfires
Research and evaluation of recent data indicate an increasing amount of wildfires in the United States, elevating the urgency of the situation and the need for newer strategies.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the United States has suffered a staggering $40 million in acres burned in the last five years. Similarly, the firefighting cost in the same 2016-2021 period is over $14 billion.
The Economic Consequences of Wildfires
Wildfires can affect the state’s economy, property, and infrastructure at multiple levels. With billions of dollars in costs, a wildfire can cause severe damage and losses per year.
Property Damage. Destroyed or damaged property is a very common result of a wildfire. In California, wildfires damaged and destroyed thousands of buildings in the last decade.
Infrastructure Destruction. Power lines, roads, and bridges are also in direct line of danger when a wildfire erupts. Damage to infrastructure affects evacuation plans, transportation, and power supply.
Economic Disruption. Agriculture and tourism are two sectors heavily affected by wildfires. As a result, the state suffers from lost tourism revenue and food harvesting.
Firefighting Resources Strain — Why Is Budget Allocation Necessary?
The elevated frequency of wildfires across the United States has deeply affected firefighting resources.
Therefore, agencies struggle to keep up with the funding, equipment, and personnel necessary to prepare accordingly. Likewise, the high suppression cost has put a strain on state and federal budgets.
For this reason, effective budget allocation is necessary to face wildfire incidents. This will help manage the financial impact and allow the firefighting agencies to respond accordingly.
The budget allocation also promotes the development of innovative strategies, like community awareness, scientific research, and the development of newer technologies.
Examining Firefighting Budgets and Expenditures
Reviewing firefighting budgets determined by the state and federal government can give a solid indication of whether or not the investments are enough. Likewise, it can help identify where the problem lies and what else officials can do to improve firefighting expenditures efficiency.
Federal and State-Level Budgets Dedicated to Wildfire Prevention and Suppression Efforts
United States representatives have increased the budget for wildfire suppression and management at a federal and state level. This is in response to the increasing wildfire cost, which required over $4 billion in 2021. Some of the most significant budgets distribute as follows.
Federal Budget. Recently, the United States government extended $3.2 billion to manage and suppress wildfire incidents in 2021. This number is superior to the year before. Likewise, the federal government promotes research and new technology development to battle wildfires.
State Budgets. The budget to battle wildfires varies depending on the state. In California, officials designated $2 billion for wildfire prevention and suppression in 2021-2022. This number includes $1.2 billion to manage forests and more than $500 billion as an investment in equipment and personnel.
Emergency Funds. An emergency fund is a direct response to catastrophic wildfires. In this case, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offers relief funds to different locations suffering wildfires.
Analyzing Trends in Firefighting Expenditures
A comprehensive evaluation of firefighting expenditures over the past five years shows that firefighting costs are on the rise.
The National Interagency Fire Center reveals that expenses to mitigate and manage wildfires increased from $1.9 billion in 2016 to $4.3 billion in 2021. These numbers represent a massive increase that is more likely to go up.
Significant Wildfire Events & Their Associated Costs
Multiple wildfires over the years have resulted in catastrophic damage in several states across the United States. These are a few examples that highlight the severity of this problem.
2017 California Wildfires. California experienced one of the worst wildfire seasons in 2017. During this period, an estimated 9,560 fires burned 1,548,429 acres of land, destroyed over 9,400 structures, and produced 47 human fatalities. The cost of these fires was allegedly $180 billion.
2018 California Camp Fire. Considered the deadliest wildfire in California’s history, the Camp Fire started due to an electrical transmission fire from a power line.
The fires consumed over 153.336 acres, destroyed 18,804 buildings, and resulted in 85 people fatalities. This wildfire disaster cost $16.65 billion.
2020 Oregon Wildfires. During 2020, Oregon suffered an intense wildfire season with severe consequences for the state. The fires burned over 1,000,000 acres, destroyed over 3,000 buildings, and caused 11 fatalities.
Oregon estimated the cost at $622 million, while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) states it was $1.2 billion.
These examples clearly illustrate the massive burden of wildfires on different states. The loss of human lives, land, buildings, and ecosystems demonstrates the urgency of addressing the problem accordingly.
The Complex Factors Influencing Firefighting Costs
Understanding the factors that cause wildfires is a pending task for firefighting agencies and communities. Here’s a breakdown of things to consider about this aspect.
Factors More Likely to Increase Wildfire Fighting Costs
Multiple factors have increased the cost of fighting wildfires over the last few years—for example, climate change, fuel buildup, and urban expansion into high-risk areas.
Climate change is easily one of the most prominent factors heavily affecting the wildfire problem. Rising temperatures, varying precipitation patterns, and drought conditions have changed drastically. These elements make wildfires more intense, frequent, and last longer.
Then, there’s fuel buildup. After decades of policies dedicated to fire suppression, combustible materials like dead trees, brush, and vegetation have accumulated in forested areas. For this reason, even the smallest spark can escalate into an uncontrolled fire in hours.
Urban expansion into fire-prone locations is another factor contributing to wildfire chaos. With people moving into wildland regions, potential wildfires caused by humans are more likely to occur. These areas are usually harder to protect in a wildfire and lead to higher costs.
The Main Challenges of Firefighting Agencies
Agencies specialized in mitigating wildfires face prominent challenges with limited resources and scarce personnel during intense wildfire seasons. Some of these challenges are:
Resource Allocation. Firefighting agencies must allocate resources during intense wildfire seasons, including personnel and equipment. This measure requires a strategy to guarantee effective wildfire management.
Nonetheless, the agencies may need to prioritize situations by severity due to limited resources.
Shortage of Personnel. Peak wildfire seasons take a toll on firefighting personnel, increasing stress with more hours worked. These problems can affect the firefighters’ mental stability and response during the chaos.
Limited Equipment. Lack of equipment like firefighting aircraft can severely affect response time to control the fire on time. This is an even bigger problem in remote areas with limited ground access.
Cost Management. Proper use of the firefighting budget becomes a challenge during peak wildfire season. Agencies need to balance how to address the situation while avoiding overspend.
Innovative Strategies to Reduce Wildfire Costs & Improve Management Practices
The Government has started implementing long-term initiatives due to the urgency of the wildfire situation. In 2021, lawmakers approved the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) / Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).
Under this law, the state concedes over $500 billion destined for natural disaster preparedness. Plus, BIL helps to increase community resilience and promotes new technologies and scientific research to assist vulnerable communities for the next decade.
The purpose of this investment is to tackle climate change risks by supporting weatherization and offering protection against droughts, floods, and wildfires.
Furthermore, BIL concedes over $8 billion for land and forest management and millions to programs designed for fuel reduction and wildfire risk mitigation.
Finally, the current administration has taken steps to support wildfire detection and invest in firefighting aircraft.
The Toll on Local and State Budgets
Local and state budgets are critical elements to consider while assessing wildfire damages. Despite the state’s efforts, budgets established often don’t offer the coverage needed for this disaster.
The Impact of Wildfire Costs: State Budgets, Funds Reallocation, and Emergency Declarations
Wildfire costs take a significant toll on both state and local budgets. During a wildfire breakout, the state works quickly to allocate funds for firefighting efforts, evacuation procedures, emergency services, and more.
These expenses add up, and sometimes the budget does not provide complete coverage. Reallocation of funds is necessary, which usually comes from other critical areas.
The U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue addressed this problem. “Forest Service spending on fire suppression in recent years has gone from 15 percent of the budget to 55 percent,” he stated. Adding that “we have to keep borrowing from funds that are intended for forest management.”
Additionally, the Forest Service stated that the entity could use that money on preventive measures like logging and prescribed burns.
The solution is sometimes declaring a state of emergency. During this period, officials have access to extra funds and resources granted by the federal government. Unfortunately, the damage can still last for years.
With less tourism revenue and property destroyed, local and state budgets still face financial consequences.
States Suffering Budget Shortfalls Due to Wildfire Damage & Expenses
Several states have received considerable damage caused by wildfires in recent years.
One of the states most affected is California, in which over 313 wildfires have erupted and spiraled out of control. Wildfire seasons in this state are intense, prompting the state to invest billions to mitigate the fire and repair damages.
In 2021, Californians experienced one of the most catastrophic fires, which resulted in 2.6 million acres burned, more than 3,500 properties destroyed, and an estimated three fatalities.
The following year (2022) saw less wildfire damage, with 876 properties affected or destroyed and 362.455 acres burned. Sadly, the incidents took even more lives this time, with nine human fatalities.
Oregon is another state dealing with budget shortfalls caused by wildfires. This state experienced some of the worst fires in 2020, with over 1 million acres burned and hundreds of structures destroyed. State officials acted quickly, investing more than $500 million in firefighting expenses.
The consequence was a considerable budget shortfall. This damage was highly noticeable in the state’s finances after suffering lost tourism revenue and infrastructure collapse.
Potential Damage to Public Services and Infrastructure in Fire-Prone Regions
Wildfires can affect the quality of living in fire-prone regions in multiple ways. A fast-spreading fire will directly or indirectly damage critical infrastructure, which includes power lines, water treatment facilities, and roads.
In the chaos ensuing from uncontrolled fire, damage to infrastructure will disrupt potential evacuation plans and survival possibilities. Plus, the cost of making repairs will increase as well.
Citizens and business owners will also experience higher costs of services like insurance for households and businesses.
California is a clear example of this problem.
For California residents, the likelihood of getting a denied insurance request is more elevated due to the high-risk condition of the state.
Fortunately, the California FAIR plan is an alternative offering standard wildfire coverage, but this measure is not enough. Just in 2018, an estimated 350,000 residents couldn’t receive the service following a devastating year of wildfire damage.
Collaborative Approaches and Future Preparedness
Officials at a federal, state, and local level must work together to mitigate wildfire risks.
Fortunately, multiple federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) focus their efforts on collaborating with local and state agencies to address the wildfire problem.
This partnership allows for the development of wildfire prevention and management strategies. The efforts include training exercises and constant communication to share information.
Collaborative effort extends to private companies, primarily those related to timber. A joint perspective allows these companies to create sustainable land management measures to reduce risks and improve fire safety in the workplace.
It’s only by sharing information, resources, and expertise that the state and all entities will tackle wildfires more effectively. The result will be a safer ecosystem and a lower financial burden for taxpayers.
Reducing Firefighting Expenses — Measures to Take
Community engagement, early detection systems, and proactive prevention measures are of great importance in lowering the cost of firefighting expenses.
Engaging communities and educating them about wildfire preparedness will help reduce the number of wildfires caused by human beings. Surprisingly, human-caused wildfires represent a considerable portion of the incidents during the last decade.
Employing early detection systems is another measure that will reduce the amount of money spent mitigating fires. Technology like fire towers and remote sensing allow firefighters to respond quickly and more efficiently.
Therefore, the state and agencies will not have to invest more than necessary to suppress fires.
Measures like prescribed burning or forest thinning heavily reduce the risks of a catastrophic wildfire breaking out. Naturally, fewer fire risks would mean fewer wildfire incidents and less money spent.
These are three basic recommendations to reduce firefighting expenses and protect people, property, and the environment.
The Importance of the Big Three Factors: Long-Term Planning, Policy Adjustments, and Investment in Research & Technology
Three factors are essential to battle the wildfire threat in the United States. These factors are policy adjustments, long-term planning, plus investment in research and technology.
Policy adjustments are necessary to adapt to the rising wildfire threat. Lawmakers must re-evaluate policies like land use.
This policy can have an impact in preventing the building of households in particularly wildfire-prone locations. Similarly, the state can increase awareness of fire-resistant building codes and readjust fire management policies.
Long-term planning is decisive in creating effective measures and strategies to battle wildfires. The state and communities must identify high-risk areas, implement preventive measures, and organize emergency response plans.
Planning will also allow the communities to develop efficient land management practices. Thus, wildfires could potentially be less frequent and severe.
Investment in technology and research is essential to innovate and approach the wildfire problem with a new and modern perspective. Proper research will allow state agencies to identify potential wildfire causes, risks, and preventive strategies.
Likewise, technology can produce tools like remote sensing or fire modeling instruments to assess wildfire threats more accurately. In return, firefighters will count on proper tools to mitigate fire incidents.
Mitigating wildfires in the United States is a challenge the state and communities are not prepared for. From 2016 to 2020, the cost of fighting wildfires was over $10 billion. This budgetary expense equals between two and four billion per year.
Wildfires are constant threats to many communities and ecosystems across the United States, directly affecting the country’s economy and budget. In recent years, this threat has increased to an exponential level.
As a result, policymakers, communities, and stakeholders must reassess the urgency of this matter and act accordingly.
Policymakers must address the issue proactively to implement measures that lead to effective prevention and management of wildfires.
Communities play an equally important role. Creating evacuation plans and promoting defensible spaces for households can save many lives amid the tragedy.
Lastly, stakeholders must have all the resources available to guarantee efficient evacuation of affected areas.
Ignoring the threat of wildfires will only lead to many more lives lost, properties destroyed, and a ruined economy. The time to act is now.