CSU economics, environment expert examines cost of wildfires: 'How can we spend less?'

Posted at 10:54 PM, Aug 02, 2023

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Researchers at Colorado State University (CSU) are studying the economic impact of wildfires. Specifically, they are examining how to make fighting fires more efficient, since billions of federal dollars are spent each year to do so.

“It puts it in dollars and cents terms," said Dr. Jude Bayham, an associate professor in the CSU Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics. “The federal government spends billions on wildfire suppression each year.”

Bayham analyzes what factors make certain fires expensive. Obviously, fires that destroy homes and buildings, like the Marshall Fire, carry the greatest financial burden.

“That bill goes, ultimately, goes to the government. And they're looking to try to become more efficient, spend less on fire suppression, or that money has to come from somewhere else, the taxpayers," he said.

Bayham also wonders how firefighting resources will be distributed.

“More of our sort of elite firefighting resources and engines are sent to fires that threaten more structures. But not only that, when those fires are happening in other parts of the country, there are fewer resources available — fewer firefighters, engines, aircraft available for other areas if new fires start," he said. “When we're thinking about the landscape, and all fires happening at the same time, when we send resources to one fire, we have to be ready to move them around or to respond to new emerging fires.”

We asked Bayham if there's ways to improve the federal government's efficiency and bring down fire suppression costs when we are currently dealing with a changing climate.

“That is an ultimate question right now. No, fires are becoming larger and more intense, more severe. And so, it's always measured against what would be if we didn't take any action. So if we just kept doing things as we did, the bill could be even higher," Bayham explained. “We're hopefully becoming more judicious about how we're using our resources and hoping to minimize costs.”

Bayham said through his research, one of the most expensive forms of fire suppression is aircraft. One of his next studies is focused on aviation research and aircraft.

"I think one of the key questions that we don't have good quantitative understanding of is how effective certain aircraft strategies are," he said.

Bayham's study states the largest cost of wildfires is health impacts, which include cardiovascular and respiratory issues. Dr. Christine Wiedinmyer, associate director for science at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado at Boulder, knows how serious the smoke from the wildfires can be.

“Quite a few studies are now looking at women who are exposed to wildfire smoke during pregnancy. There are health or birth outcomes that they believe are related to exposure to wildfire smoke," said Wiedinmyer.

Despite all of the rain Colorado has experienced this summer, wildfire experts are anxious about what could happen if the Centennial State begins to dry over the course of the next few months.

“It does make me nervous, depending on what happens later on in the season. If the rain stops and things dry out, we're going to have a lot of stuff to burn," said Wiedinmyer. “A lot of the fires that are happening now, they're extremely severe. So they're really burning everything on the landscape. And so, really changing the ecosystems, changing the value of our outside ecosystem services, like our parks and our forests.”

Another study out of CSU showed 2020 was the worst wildfire season in Colorado's history, and if climate trends hold true, years like 2020 could become more common. That same study found another wildfire season like 2020 is "four to 10 times higher than it was 50 years ago."

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