The Price of Saving Homes from Forest Fires

| Thu Sep. 20, 2007 3:04 PM EDT

It takes money to fight fires, and the bigger the fire, the more expensive it is. With all the news of wildfires in the west, it's interesting to learn that it costs the Forest Service a billion dollars a year to protect homes in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). High Country News has an interesting post today about a report on the cost of fighting fires in the WUI.

Some interesting tidbits from the report:

* Only 14% of forested western private land adjacent to public land is currently developed for residential use. Based on current growth trends, there is tremendous potential for future development on the remaining 86%.

* Given the skyrocketing cost of fighting wildfires in recent years (on average $1.3 billion each year between 2000-2005), this potential development would create an unmanageable financial burden for taxpayers.

* If homes were built in 50% of the forested areas where private land borders public land, annual firefighting costs could range from $2.3 billion to $4.3 billion per year. By way of comparison, the U.S. Forest Service's annual budget is approximately $4.5 billion.

* One in five homes in the wildland urban interface is a second home or cabin, compared to one in twenty-five homes on other western private lands.

* Residential lots built near wildlands take up more than six times the space of homes built in other places. On average, 3.2 acres per person are consumed for housing in the wildland urban interface, compared to 0.5 acres on other western private lands.

Protecting the WUI from future development, it seems, would be a step in the right direction. But till that happens, there are some pretty interesting ethical questions to wrestle with. Here's one: Do second-home owners have as much of a right as first-home owners to build in the WUI, if firefighters must risk their lives—and spend taxpayer money—to save vacation cabins?

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