Yale Report Says Government Underestimates Cost of Wildfires

The cost of wildfires is vastly underestimated because federal and state agencies do not share or collect enough data on the impacts of fires, according to a report released by the Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.

“During the past three fire seasons, 19 million acres of forest burned across the United States, from New Jersey to California, costing $3.4 billion for fire suppression,” said Mary Tyrrell, director of the program on private forests and co-author of the report. “This only begins to tell the story of wildfire impacts on communities.”

Federal agencies keep records only on total acres burned, structures destroyed and fire suppression costs, which, according to the report, provide policy makers with an incomplete picture of the impacts from wildfires. The report, which is available at www.yale.edu/gisf/, recommends that government agencies also calculate restoration costs, watershed impacts, lost tourism revenue, private property losses and human health effects in order to reassess wildfire policies and forest management practices.

The report contains case studies of 10 of the most costly and damaging fires in recent years using data collected from national and state agencies over the past three years. The Hayman Fire, the largest in Colorado’s history, last year burned nearly 137,760 acres of the Pike National Forest and private lands within 20 miles of the Denver and Colorado Springs metropolitan areas, home to nearly three million people. The estimated cost of suppressing the fire was $39 million. But, according to Tyrrell, the real cost was more likely triple that amount after factoring in the fire’s impact on the Denver municipal water supply system and public health, and the cost of restoring private and federal lands.

Researchers found that eight of the 10 fires burned in areas where pre-fire forest conditions were significantly altered over many decades by fire suppression, timber harvesting, grazing, the introduction of exotic plant species, and from insects and disease. Tyrrell believes that increased funding for better forest management at the wildland/urban interface would help reduce the severity and cost of these wildfires.

The report, “Assessing the Environmental, Social and Economic Impacts of Wildfire,” was funded by the American Forest and Paper Association and Yale’s Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry.

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Dave DeFusco: david.defusco@yale.edu, 203-436-4842