Economic risks: Forest Service projects rising wildfire costs due to climate change

May 16, 2024

Forest Service predicts increased wildfire suppression costs

Wildfire suppression costs have averaged over $3 billion per year for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and the Department of the Interior over the past decade.

As reported by the US Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, future costs are expected to rise due to climate change.

The Climate Financial Risk report published by the White House Office of Management and Budget includes estimates of future wildfire suppression costs, with contributions from Forest Service researchers.

Jeff Prestemon of the Forest Service Southern Research Station stated: “We analyzed 10 future climate scenarios and a wide range of projections for fire extent and fire suppression spending.”

Increasing temperatures and wildfire activity

Global land and sea temperatures are rising, leading to hotter and faster-moving wildfires.

The wildfire season has extended, now referred to as a fire year.

These changes are projected to worsen, with significant implications for wildfire management.

In 2023, the Forest Service, in collaboration with partners, communities, and tribes, treated over 4.3 million acres of hazardous fuels.

Despite these efforts, the analysis predicts a near doubling of the area burned by mid-century on National Forest System lands.

In some scenarios, the burned area could quadruple, with estimates ranging from a 42% to a 306% increase.

Projected costs of wildfire suppression

Suppression expenditures are expected to rise, with a middle estimate suggesting a 42% increase in costs by 2050, reaching $3.9 billion.

Some estimates suggest costs could rise by 84%.

Beyond 2050, costs could increase by 17% to 283%, with a median annual expenditure of $44.9 billion by late century.

All future spending estimates have been adjusted to 2022-dollar equivalents.

Jeffrey “Frenchy” Morisette of the Rocky Mountain Research Station emphasized that the estimates focus solely on suppression expenditures, excluding other wildfire-related damages to people, property, and resources.

Historical and methodological context

The 2024 report builds on previous work from 2016 and 2021-2022, extending the analysis back to 1993 and incorporating additional potential drivers of wildfire.

Prestemon highlighted the comprehensive approach: “We took great care to account for how wildfire, spending, and its drivers vary across space and time.” The full report details the assumptions, methods, and models used in the analysis.

Understanding and reducing wildfire risk is a key focus of land management strategies.

Prescribed fire, a critical tool for wildfire risk reduction, is also essential for maintaining healthy forest ecosystems.

FSJA comment

The projected increase in wildfire suppression costs underscores the urgent need for comprehensive wildfire management strategies.

As climate change continues to drive up temperatures and extend the wildfire season, the financial burden on agencies responsible for wildfire suppression is expected to grow significantly.

The Forest Service’s efforts to treat hazardous fuels and collaborate with various stakeholders highlight proactive steps being taken to mitigate wildfire risks.

However, the projected rise in suppression costs suggests that these measures may need to be scaled up and supported by additional resources to effectively manage the increasing wildfire threat.

Prescribed fires, recognized as an effective tool for reducing wildfire risk, play a vital role in maintaining the health of forest ecosystems.

As wildfire risks escalate, enhancing the use of prescribed fire and other preventive measures will be crucial in managing both the ecological and financial impacts of wildfires.

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