Monday, October 10, 2016

Planning for Wildfire in the Wildland-Urban Interface, Part 2: The Price of Wildfire

[This post is part of a series on wildfire planning.  View previous posts in this series at the bottom of the page.  Download the full wildfire planning guide from which these posts are excerpted, here.]

 In 1995, fire made up 16 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s annual appropriated budget; in 2015, wildfire consumed more than 50 percent of the agency’s budget, a benchmark reflective of steadily rising costs.[2]  At the same time, while 91 percent of federal appropriations for wildfire management are allocated to protect federal lands, it is increasingly clear that federal funds are being used to protect private homes and other structures “adjacent to federal lands [that] can significantly alter fire control strategies and raise costs.”[3]  In a survey of Forest Service land managers, estimates were that “[fifty] to [ninety-five] percent of firefighting costs were attributable to protection of private property.”[4]  Moreover, a study conducted for the Montana legislature found that firefighting costs are “highly correlated with the number of homes threatened.”[5]  A recent study of wildfires in Wyoming found that protecting just one isolated home added as much as $225,000 to the overall cost of fighting a fire.[6] 

The rising cost of fighting fires and, in particular, those that threaten private property, has many factors including terrain, fuels, and weather.[7]  Increasingly, though, attention is being directed to the rapid growth of remote developments—especially those not designed or maintained with wildfire in mind—at the urban periphery often referred to as the “wildland-urban interface,” or WUI (pronounced “Woo-E”).  There is good reason why attention is turning to these types of developments:  six of the 10 most expensive fires in the past 100 years were WUI fires despite the fact that WUI fires account for just a small fraction of overall fires fought in any given year.[9] 

According to one widely used WUI definition, only 14 percent of the WUI is developed.[10]  If current development patterns continue, development in the WUI will almost certainly grow substantially, resulting in even further increases in wildfire protection costs.  With the Mountain West perennially ranking as one of the country’s fastest growing regions, this WUI development is certain to grow over time.  As this growth occurs, certain mismatches in process will be exacerbated.  Local governments retain authority to approve WUI development through applications of local zoning, building, fire, and subdivision codes even though it is typically the federal government that bears the greatest burden in protecting—and has the greatest resources to protect—those developments from wildfire.  A few local governments in the West are integrating a deep knowledge of wildfire protection policy into their planning and development processes.  More collaboration is necessary to build an enduring solution to wildfire near development.  Subsequent posts on the blog will focus on these pioneering communities that are trying out new approaches to planning for wildfire, and what the rest of the West can learn from them.


[2] U.S. Forest Service, The Rising Cost of Wildfire Operations:  Effects on the Forest Service’s Non-Fire Work 2 (2015),

[3] Ross Gorte, Headwaters Econs., The Rising Cost of Wildfire Protection 7, 14 (2013),

[4] Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Dep’t of Agric. Audit Report:  Forest Service Large Fire Suppression Costs ii (2006),, archived at; see also Urban Wildland Interface Communities Within the Vicinity of Federal Lands That Are at High Risk from Wildfire, 66 Fed. Reg. 752,753 (Dep’t of Agric. Jan. 4, 2001) (notices) (defining the WUI as “where humans and their development meet or intermix with wildland fuel”).

[5] Headwaters Econs., Montana Wildfire Cost Study Technical Report18 (2008),; see also Patricia H. Gude et al., Headwaters Econs., Evidence for the Effect of Homes on Wildfire Suppression Costs 14 (2011), (finding the same in a similar study conducted in California).

[6] Anna M. Scofield, Residential Development Effects on Firefighting

Costs in the Wildland-Urban Interface 3 (2015),

[7] William E. Mell et al., The wildland–urban interface fire problem – current approaches and research needs, 19 Int’l J. of Wildland Fire 238, 239 (2010).

[9] See Headwaters Econs., The Rising Cost of Wildfire Protection 1 (2013),

[10] Headwaters Econs., Solutions to the Rising Costs of Fighting Fires in the Wildland Urban Interface 5 (Dec. 2009),


Previous posts in this series:

Part 1: An Overview of WUI Wildfire Planning

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