How Wildfire Costs Affect Idaho and Western US Budgets


The number and size of wildfires in the western United States are expected to increase with climate change. New analysis shows how much states are paying to turn them off.

The study focused on fiscal impacts on state budgets and found that western states collectively spent nearly $ 12 billion to suppress forest fires between 2005 and 2015. The federal government did not reimburse that about 12% of these costs.

The research was published this month in the journal Review of state and local governments by a team from the College of Natural Resources at the University of Idaho.

One of the authors, Chelsea Pennick McIver, said most policy makers focus on the costs of wildfires incurred at the federal level.

“Unlike the federal government, most states are required to balance their budgets each year,” she said. “So the rising, or catastrophic, costs of forest fires can have a pretty big impact on other budget priorities.”

All of the western states surveyed by the group pay the fire costs out of their general funds. Most states allocate general fund credits for pre-season and sometimes post-season fires. But Idaho, along with New Mexico and Colorado, typically seize the funds after the fire season.

Some states have more unique systems for paying removal costs, such as Oregon, which, among others, has a private insurance policy for wildfires.

“It’s a system that kicks in once they hit a certain spending threshold,” Pennick said.

The study suggested that states may need to consider new sources of funding if removal costs continue to rise.

Pennick said future work in this area might focus on how certain efforts to prevent or mitigate wildfires affect total suppression costs and might explain other related costs. These include loss of tourism income, loss of timber value on state endowment land, and loss of life and property due to forest fires.

Wildfires on Idaho state-protected lands this year cost an estimated $ 75 million, and the Idaho Lands Department is preparing to ask the legislature for a budget increase.

Find journalist Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

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