October 2015 Bar Bulletin
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October 2015 Bar Bulletin

Mitigating the Threat of Wildfire on Development in the West

By Myles Conway


The threat of wildfire continues to grow across the western U.S. Fires are getting larger, causing more damage and costing more money to control and suppress. Several of the worst fire seasons in decades have occurred since 2000, with the problem growing each year.

A number of fundamental factors contribute to the significant growth of wildfire threats. First and foremost, our western forest lands are characterized by a significant and growing biomass that provides the fuels that sustain catastrophic wildfires. Decades of fire suppression activities have eliminated the natural cycle of fires that have long kept the western landscape in balance. The historic pattern of small and frequent fire cycles has been disrupted, allowing dense undergrowth and the accumulation of forest debris.

Historic forest management practices and overgrazing have worked to exacerbate the problem. The native grasses that have fueled normal and periodic, low-intensity surface fires have been replaced by densely packed trees and brush that sustain the hotter and more intense "canopy" fires that characterize recent fire seasons.

More than 15,000 wildfires burned in the continental U.S. between 2000 and 2013, threatening 127 different urban areas.1 Western cities located adjacent to public landholdings have proved particularly vulnerable to wildfire threats because of increasing drought conditions, remote forested areas, steep terrain and limited opportunities for access.

Wildfires frequently threaten homes, development and critical infrastructure. Public communication facilities, energy infrastructure, critical transportation routes, water supplies and air quality are routinely threatened by the spread of wildfire. The costs of fire suppression activities continue to grow at an accelerating pace.

The future growth of western population centers will create both challenges and opportunities in addressing the risk of wildfire. Development in what is characterized as the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) has sparked significant debate regarding the wisdom of allowing development in fire-prone areas, the impact of fire suppression on governmental budgets and whether building codes, land use restrictions and other tools can effectively be utilized to minimize the impacts of continued growth. This article explores the tools being developed by different western communities to combat the ongoing threat of wildfire.

The Evolution of Fire Policy

The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) adopted a strong policy of fire suppression beginning as early as 1920.2 The Clarke-McNary Act of 19243 tied federal appropriations to a requirement that each state adopt a strong fire suppression policy. As a practical matter, this resulted in a national policy of fire suppression.

While early fire research (dating from the 1920s) demonstrated the significant ecological benefits associated with a regular cycle of frequent and low-intensity fires, such actions were contrary to state and federal fire policies for many decades. Fire suppression policies were initially effective in controlling the spread of wildfire. However, the excessive loading of forest fuels has resulted in larger, hotter and more intensive "stand-replacement" fires that are far more difficult and costly to control.

Federal fire policy has significantly changed since 1995 with a current recognition that fire plays a natural and essential role in the ecology of the West. A 2001 federal "Wildfire Management Policy" characterized fire as "as a critical natural process"" to be "integrated into land and resource management plans and activities on a landscape scale, and across agency boundaries.""4

Following this change in federal fire policy, the USFS began efforts to reduce fire hazards on public lands using a combination of mechanical treatments and prescribed fire. Both the USFS and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have initiated significant efforts to treat and control fire hazards on the western public lands, with specified goals for annual fire treatments.

Unfortunately, agency progress toward stated fire treatment goals has been constrained by a number of factors. Federal agencies encounter a variety of legal and practical challenges in efforts to implement fuel reduction measures. Public opposition to smoke has made it increasingly difficult for land managers to implement prescribed burns, particularly in locations near urban centers where such treatments are critically necessary. In addition, regulatory review and court challenges related to the short-term impact of fire on sensitive, threatened and endangered species have impeded progress toward agency treatment goals.5

Budgetary constraints and liability concerns (discussed in more detail below) have also severely limited agency treatment efforts and objectives. While current fire policies recognize the need to implement aggressive forest fuel reduction measures, efforts are increasingly derailed by the substantial costs of fire suppression. As a result, federal, state and local governments face significant roadblocks in their efforts to address, control and reduce forest fuels.

Growth of Wildfire Protection Costs

The primary federal agencies responsible for fire protection are the USFS, BLM, the National Park Service (NPS), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Federal appropriations for fire suppression activities have tripled since 1990. In the 1990s, the average cost of federal wildfire protection and suppression was less than $1 billion annually.6 Annual costs have grown substantially since 2012, now averaging more than $3 billion per year.7

Nearly half of the USFS annual budget and nearly 10 percent of the budget for all Department of Interior agencies (including the BLM, NPS, FWS and BIA) are now devoted to wildfire suppression efforts. In addition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been required to pay substantial amounts in disaster relief related to large wildfires.

FEMA responded to 19 major or emergency wildfire disaster declarations between 2000 and 2012.8 FEMA's fire management assistance grants have grown from $20.4 million annually in the 1990s to more than $71.2 million annually between 2002 and 2011.9

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