Robert W. Gray: Wildfires cost far more than we think

Wildfires this year are going to cost the provincial government much more than it thinks. At the end of every fire season the province reports on how much taxpayers’ money went into fire suppression — but the cost of suppression is only a fraction of the total or “true” cost of wildfires.

In a position paper just released by the world’s three pre-eminent fire-science associations, the Association for Fire Ecology, the International Association of Wildland Fire and the Nature Conservancy, the authors point out that the true cost of wildfires is typically two to 32 times the suppression cost (fireecologyjournal.org/reduce-wildfire-risks/).

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The addition of long-term indirect and additional costs (often up to a decade after the fire) include human-health effects, loss of business income, reduced property values and erosion mitigation.

For example, the 2003 fire season in B.C. was estimated in early 2004 to have a total cost of approximately $1.2 billion, with suppression making up only a third of the cost. This estimate, produced by the accounting firm Grant Thornton, is likely to be conservative as it did not include such high-cost items as long-term human physical and emotional health, the loss of life (three firefighters lost their lives), and soil erosion and infrastructure damage resulting from strong rainfall events on burned areas.

In another example, the 2012 Rim Fire in California cost $127 million to suppress; however, long-term indirect and additional costs are expected to push the total cost of the fire to $1.8 billion.

Knowing that wildfires have an even greater economic impact on annual provincial and local government budgets than originally estimated should compel the province to invest more in proactive wildfire-hazard mitigation. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.

In 2014, the province didn’t invest any money in wildfire-hazard mitigation through investment in the Union of B.C. Municipalities Strategic Wildfire Prevention Program Initiative. It did, however, invest over $70 million in flood mitigation.

Since 2002, the province has invested over $2 billion in earthquake mitigation. In the 11 years since the 2003 fire season and the release of the Filmon Report, the province has invested only $100 million in wildfire-hazard mitigation, yet the cost of suppression alone over that same period has been $2.2 billion. Investments in hazard mitigation are only a fraction of the total amount being spent on fighting fires plus the damage caused by those fires — a pattern that runs counter to sensible cost-benefit risk-management practices.

In B.C., there is a significant discrepancy in funding of hazard mitigation for high-cost, high-risk natural disturbances; where there appears to be plenty of money for the proactive management of earthquake and flood hazards, there is almost none for wildfires. The reason is that wildfire-hazard mitigation has traditionally been expected to pay for itself through forest-thinning and the sale of forest products such as dimension lumber and biomass for energy.

Unfortunately, logging for profit is not the same as wildfire-hazard mitigation — they are two distinctly different objectives, and obfuscating them might run counter to effectiveness. In many parts of the interior of the province, much of the value is in larger-diameter, fire-tolerant trees, which are also the trees that need to be left to maintain a fire-resilient forest.

The component of the forest that needs to be removed is the small-diameter, fire-intolerant trees and the dead trees (both standing and fallen) — neither of which are very profitable to remove or utilize. In many cases, there are too many of the latter and too few of the former to make a treatment profitable, so in the end the hazard doesn’t get treated.

To be truly effective at wildfire-hazard mitigation, the province will need to look at subsidizing the removal of forest biomass — both merchantable and non-merchantable, much the way it subsidizes the mitigation of hazard from earthquakes and floods. Otherwise, it will continue to spend billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money on wildfire suppression and post-wildfire cleanup and rehabilitation.

 

Robert W. Gray is a fire ecologist. He lives in Chilliwack.

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