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The Costs Of Firefighting

Should Landowners Or Taxpayers Pay Wildfire Costs?

A new bill in the Oregon Legislature requires taxpayers to cover more of the costs of fighting forest fires on private land.

Right now, timber companies and homeowners whose houses are placed among the trees pay the biggest fees.

... Supporters say the additional public subsidy is justified because taxpayers benefit from using private forest land. Also, statistics show the public causes about one-third of forest fires.

I don't have a clearcut position on exactly what proportion of firefighting costs should be paid by the public versus the landowner. Certainly there's a role for public aid, since wildfire doesn't respect property boundaries. But I think the second argument offered in support of increasing the proportion of costs paid by the public takes a bit of a narrow view of fire. It harkens back to the Smokey the Bear ideology, in which the problem of wildfire is a problem of too many ignitions. Certainly ignitions play a role, and there's no excuse for carelessness or arson. But the damage done by a fire, and the difficulty (and hence cost) of fighting it is going to be much more shaped by land use decisions on the affected land. These range from fuel reduction, to providing accessibility for equipment, to the layout of structures and other valuables (e.g. a cluster of buildings is easier to protect than scattered ones). For this reason, states like California, Arizona and Colorado that have the public cover the full costs seem to be taking the wrong approach, removing an incentive for landowners to make firefighting as efficient as possible.


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