Warm Communities on the Edge
The 2007 fires in Idaho reminded residents that living on the edge of National Forests incurs a risk. The landscape patterns that attract human settlement also exhibit periodic disturbance in the form of forest fire. Over two million acres were burned last year within Idaho's borders, threatening human safety and private property of communities on the edge. Two of the large fires were adjacent to the communities of Warm Lake (Cascade Complex) and Warm Springs Road (Castle Rock Fire, near Ketchum and Sun Valley Ski Resort).
The national fire suppression costs totaled $1.8 billion for 2007, including $125 million for the fires within the state of Idaho. Large fires for 2008 have shifted to other regions, but without a change in the factors contributing to the high costs of suppression. Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimball informed field offices in August that the $1.2 billion fire suppression budget for this year will likely fall short by $400 million. The National Forests will need to cover the shortfall by reallocating funds from other programs.
Fire research predicts that these trends in large regional fire years will continue. Earlier snow melt in the spring, combined with warmer conditions, increase the length of the fire season and the moisture stress of forests in the Western U.S. The interaction of fire events with the increase in conversion of adjacent private forests complicates management for all landowners.
A 2006 audit report by the USDA Office of Inspector General identified a strong link between suppression costs and land use, specifically private property in the Wildland Urban Interface. Depending on the year and region, 50 to 95% of the large fire suppression costs were attributed to protection of private property. The Cascade Complex suppression costs exceeded $32 million. Fire bosses spend $15 million on the Castle Rock fire by September 1st. AIG insurance Company sent their own two man crew and equipment to protect the homes of their Private Client Group in the Warm Springs area. A company spokesperson stated that paying for protection was a better business decision that compensating owners for damage. The 2007 fire emergencies ended with well deserved accolades for the fire fighters. The hazard and the risk, however, have not dissipated with last summer's smoke.
Since national and regional statistics tend to be somewhat abstract, Spatial Interest's Loop Tour this summer included stops at the warm communities to gain a ground level perspective. This issue's slideshow and photo atlas offer a window for readers to view two communities one year after the fires.
In addition to a Forest Service budget allocation dilemma, the communities on the edge of National Forests face a land use issue. With ever increasing costs to suppress fires, reallocation of dollars to fire fighting reduces funds available for programs to improve the forest conditions: treating forest fuels, supporting community growth planning, and designing financial incentives for landowners willing to conserve private working forests. Similar to the actions of AIG in Warm Springs, communities will need to determine their own "insurance" against disaster. The strategy ought to include a mix of land use controls, conservation actions, and financial incentives to private land owners. In the absence of such a strategy, all taxpayers will continue to pay the premium.