How do federal agencies handle this burden? The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management often end up raiding other programs in order to pay for firefighting. Congress has started to address this issue, with the House of Representatives recently passing FLAME, acronym for the Federal Land Assistance and Management Act. It would create a separate account to fund fighting the most expensive wildland fires. If it passes the Senate and becomes law, biologists and recreation managers will no longer have to fear for their budgets when large fires break out.
Unfortunately, FLAME does nothing to address one of the key reasons why forest fires have become so costly: the increasing number of homes built on private land near forested public lands.
So far, across the West, only 14 percent of the private land next to publicly owned forests has homes on it. But this relatively small percentage is tremendously expensive. If you add up the efforts of local areas, state and federal agencies, the cost to protect homes from forest fires exceeds $1 billion per year. If 50 percent of the forested private lands were developed, the costs of firefighting could exceed $4 billion -the size, almost, of the Forest Service's entire budget.
A recent economic case study illustrates the gravity of the problem. On average, protecting homes from forest fires in Montana costs $28 million annually. By the year 2025, unless Western states start placing some restrictions on home construction, the costs likely will rise to $40 million annually.
Climate change has increased the costs even further. From past evidence, we know that a 1-degree increase in average summer time temperature is associated with a doubling of home-protection costs. In Montana, with additional development and hotter summers, the estimated cost of protecting homes from forest fires could exceed $80 million by 2025.
That's a large bill for a state with less than a million people. But other states already are seeing much larger bills. In California alone, for example, the costs of fire suppression in 2008 came to more than $1 billion.
Fire is a natural part of the landscape, and Western history shows that we will never succeed in banishing it from our forests. Federal and private property, logged and wilderness areas - all varieties of lands have gone up in flames in recent years.
Given all this, the current approach to fire suppression fails badly, with the perverse incentives it has developed and its lack of public accountability. People who develop in forested areas - and the local governments that allow new subdivisions - rarely if ever pay their fair share of the firefighting costs. Instead, the majority of firefighting expenses are paid by the Forest Service, BLM, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In other words, the national taxpayer picks up the tab.
Some communities have started to adopt "Firewise" protections that involve clearing defensible space and using fire-resistant building materials. This is an important step toward improving safety for homes on the 14 percent of private land near forests that is already developed. Reliance on such protections, however, could unintentionally encourage sprawl on the remaining 86 percent of land near public forests, particularly if it encourages the misguided notion that you can safely build anywhere.
Our current approach to paying firefighting costs is not sustainable. Now is the time to implement responsible, accountable steps that can help hold the line on future costs. Every year, federal agencies direct money to Western counties for various forms of fire-related assistance that could be used as an incentive for possible solutions. The stimulus bill, for example, included $250 million for the Forest Service to help counties with "wildland fire management" - a great opportunity for Westerners to develop better policies.
States could help counties by mapping "fire plains," applying lessons learned from regulating flood plains. Counties could - and should - be required to bear more of the costs of firefighting if their land-use plans permit development in fire-prone areas, and insurance rates could better reflect the risks of building homes in inappropriate places.
Unless we stop building homes in areas where homes were never meant to be, the costs of fighting forest fires will continue to escalate. And the bill will keep going to taxpayers.
Ray Rasker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of HighCountry News (hcn.org). He is the executive director of Headwaters Economics, an independent nonprofit research group in Bozeman, Montana.