By: Drew Monger Recent wildfires illustrate the need for a review of U.S. wildfire policy. Since January, over 2 million acres burned as a result of more than 27,000 wildfires. Past forest fire policies, combined with climate change and real estate development on forest fringes creates potential for even greater losses in the future.
Until the early 2000s, forest fire policy focused primarily on suppressing all fires, ignoring the natural ecological process of forest rejuvenation that forest fires support. Suppressing fires allowed fuel to build up, making fighting forest fires extremely dangerous and costly today. This year, wildfires are estimated to cause $450 million in property damage in Colorado alone. The cost of fighting wildfires is $2.9 billion each year.
The drought condition that two-thirds of the U.S. is currently facing also increases the probability of wildfires. During droughts, wildfires spread rapidly by burning through dead vegetation.
Fortunately, changes in policy could mitigate damages caused by wildfires. A non-profit research firm, Headwaters Economics, suggests the federal government initiate a wildfire insurance program similar to the National Flood Insurance Program.This program would force homeowners who choose to live in fire-prone areas to pay the full cost of their decision. The federal government should also provide funds to states and localities to study the effects of land use planning on the number of homes that locate in fire-prone areas. The U.S. Forest Service should implement these and other policies to disincentivize homeowners from locating in fire-prone areas and decrease the Federal cost of fighting wildfires.