Western wildfires raise the question of who pays

The increasing frequency of these deadly disasters burdens government budgets and could mean new fees for homeowners in harm's way.

By Bruce Kennedy Jun 19, 2013 8:55AM

Smoke billows near a home from the Black Forest Fire on June 12, 2013 north of Colorado Springs, Colorado (© Chris Schneider/Getty Images)It has already been a bad wildfire season out West, even before summer's official arrival. The Black Forest Fire (pictured) in and around Colorado Springs, Colo., has resulted in several deaths and the destruction of more than 500 homes. Firefighting costs for this event have topped $5 million.

Wildfires place a huge economic burden on federal and state budgets. In its new report "The Rising Cost of Wildfire Protection," the Headwaters Economics research group noted the six worst U.S. wildfire seasons since 1960 have all taken place since 2000.

And since 2002, the cost of federal wildfire protection and suppression has averaged more than $3 billion annually. That's more than half the U.S. Forest Service's yearly budget and more than 10% of the entire Department of the Interior's annual budget. And those numbers don't include up to $2 billion that state governments spend each year.

The rising cost of wildfire protection is due in part to a changing climate but also to the growing number of homes being built in and near forests and rural areas that are at higher risk for wildfires -- in what officials call the wildland-urban interface.

"The presence of homes in the WUI affects federal fire fighting strategies," the Headwaters report notes, "and special efforts are often made to protect individual structures."

The report also said only about 16% of WUI areas in the Western states have been developed, and given the growing numbers of people moving into the region, continued building could lead to even greater costs for federal and state governments.

"In essence," Brad Plummer wrote recently in the Washington Post's Wonkblog, "homeowners have been building in fire zones and counting on taxpayers to protect them."

But that may be changing. In January, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper launched a state task force to investigate ways of improving forest health and limiting wildfire destruction.

The group includes representatives of the insurance industry and is considering several new steps. Among them are instituting stricter building codes in WUI areas, creating a state-run insurance program to help cover losses in high-risk wildfire zones without burdening urban residents and imposing a fee on homeowners in high-risk wildfire regions to offset the cost of protecting their property.

Chris Mehl, Headwater's director of public policy, told KUSA-TV that fighting Western wildfires is "not yet at the cost of what floods are from hurricanes on the East Coast. But with the West growing in population, anyone who lives in (Colorado's) Front Range area is well aware that we're heading in that direction just because more and more homes are at risk."

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Jun 19, 2013 10:15AM
That is what home owner's insurance if for.  If you don't buy it, and many don't, you do NOT deserve to have the tax payers of America bail you out.  Had a tornado hit my house in Florida several weeks ago and sustained some roof damage and window damage.  Do I expect the tax payers in this country to pay for my repairs? Of course not.  I am currently dealing with my insurance company, and I will have to pay my $1,000 deductible, and I also had to pay $560 out of pocket to a tree service to cut down some broken but still hanging limbs in the live oaks in the yard.  That's life!!!
Jun 19, 2013 10:14AM
PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY- - seems to me- - we forgot what the heck that means- - soooo let me refresh your memory! If you want to live in a flood plane, don't be surprised when the ''THE WATER RISES''! If you ''choose'' to live at the waters edge- - hurricane damage should NOT surprise you!. If ''nature'' is your calling and the peace and quiet of the forest brings joy to your heart, don't be ASTONISHED  if your abode turns into a cinder heap. These are all ''choices'', given to you ''personally'' by the LORD and that pesky ''free will'' STUFF! SOOOO- - - once again- - why do ''I'' have to participate when disaster befalls ''YOU''? ? ? ?  
Jun 19, 2013 11:35AM
No. If you can afford the house you can afford the insurance.
Jun 19, 2013 9:28AM
I live in Colorado.  Since we've put in logging restrictions, the forests are abnormally thick with trees.  The fire supression just means that more and more tinder accumulates on the forest floor year after year.  Mother nature used to clean the forest floor with natural burns (via lightning strikes) but now we put those out.  Combine these factors plus the fact that people continue to build homes right in the middle of the forest with zero defensible space around their house and you have a recipe for disaster.  Bigger, hotter fires.
Jun 19, 2013 10:25AM
In California Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to tax every property owner in the sate to pay for fire protection. It would have been a huge subsidy to the often wealthy people who build so-called dream houses in and near wild lands. Fortunately, his attempt failed. Taxpayers should not be on the hook for the cost of protecting property threatened by wildfires. The owners should pay the full cost. In addition, firefighting efforts should be directed at protecting the forested areas from further damage, not protecting private property. 
Jun 19, 2013 10:15AM

People should only pay in the form of extra taxes or fees to cover the cost of the firefighting services and manpower FOR THAT AREA.  If a state or municipality has huge costs to cover this event, then the cost should be levied back to those states or towns.  But not to everyone.  It just like if a northern city has huge costs for salt and snow removal.  That town has to raise funds to pickup the costs.  And if a home or business gets destroyed, I'm sorry for your loss but its no different than an electrical spark or gasline break.  Bad luck - sucks to be you.  You built in a heavily wooded area.  Wildfires are sadly a fact of life.  Give these homeowners/business owners cheap loans or other benefits (just like any other major disaster) to help rebuild but don't ask me (who lives in a tornado prone area and thus my own special concerns) to pick up the tab.

Jun 19, 2013 11:11AM
The owners should have to pay extra for fire insurance that will reimburse the forest service if efforts are made to save their structures.
Jun 19, 2013 10:21AM
Insurance should cover structure losses from wildfires, that's what insurance is for - cost of fighting the fires is basically the same whether structures are present or not and most assuredly anyone building in such an area would be fully apprised of the risk of fire ahead of time...
Jun 19, 2013 9:31AM
Should tax payers cover people's loss due to wildfires? Sure, why not? We already furnish free loaders Obama Phones and will provide them free Obama-Care health insurance next year and we have 51% on the government dole. We can finance the cost by borrowing and let those under 20 pay for it during their working lives. No thanks, I don't prefer any more socialism. Each individual is personally responsible and not the responsibility of society as a whole. 
Jun 19, 2013 2:16PM
No, taxpayers should NOT get stuck with the bill. I am buying a waterfront place to retire, we cannot get flood insurance as we are not considered a "flood zone" so I cannot purchase what is not available however I paid for as much coverage as I can get. The flood hazard is a risk I run close to the water I am well aware of it, my risk my choice to be where I want to be the final years of my life, not everybody else's, same when people build in the woods near forests etc. or on the side of a cliff, they know what they are risking, if they don't shame on them. 
Jun 19, 2013 1:46PM
We currently think we are allowing our forests to go back to nature but suppression efforts are another act of mankind meddling with Mother Nature. Either let the Forest Products Industry back in to practice forestry or leave the forests alone, meaning let it burn! That is how mother nature cleanses itself.
Jun 19, 2013 10:39AM
I live in Colorado. The tree huggers decided it would be a good idea to not spray for the Pine Beetle. Millions of trees die and we couldn't cut them. Then the fires came. Now we can cut them, but it was too little too late. I took my grandchildren to see the beautiful tree covered mountains and told them to never forget this as it would all be gone in a few years. The Pine Beetle and the Aspen tree Fungus are turning the mountains barren. We could have stopped this but unfortunately a few lobbyists and their stupid city slicker constituents made sure that we could not do what was necessary to prevent it all. next comes the mud slides. So, yes if you are a tree hugger who caused my house to be endangered then you should pay for it.
Jun 19, 2013 2:47PM
I live in Colorado and not far from the burn area. But I do not think that government should bear any kind of burden when it comes to the homes of these people. I always thought that homeowners insurance should cover that. If you choose to live on the coast, same thing. Insurance rates went sky high in Fla after the hurricanes in 2004. I feel that if you want to live on the edge next to the water (my brother lives one block off the west coast of Fla)  or in a high risk burn area, you need to get the insurance coverage that covers your assets. When I was still living in the mountains I worked with the fire dept to mitigate my fire hazard. I took trees down and kept a large greenbelt around my home in case of fire. Many of my neighbors had weeds growing right up to the house (how dumb is that). If we had a fire they would have definitely burned. If people want to live in these areas, then they need to understand the risk that they may lose everything in a fire.
Jun 19, 2013 3:27PM
I agree that each household has the responsibility to have their own home owners insurance.  We have ours and don't expect someone else to pay for our loss if something should happen to our home.
Jun 19, 2013 11:40AM
To answer the question, No. Investigators are not sure what caused it but ruled out nature, so it should be covered under their home owners insurance.
Jun 20, 2013 12:39PM
I think that home owners who live in an area where wild fires are prevalent should purchase special insurance for that.  Just like home owners who live in a flood plain are required to purchase flood insurance.  If they choose not to...oh, well, it's on their dime. 
Jun 19, 2013 5:38PM
Same problem in California and other western states.  If you choose to live in an area that is susceptible to flooding, fires, tornadoes etc, don't ask the taxpayers to pick up the tab for you choice. The U.S. has turned into a nanny state ... it cannot be sustained indefinitely.
Jun 19, 2013 2:43PM
Well, we cover the cost of rebuilding New Orleans and others for hurricane damage; rebuilding Oklahoma, Missouri et al for tornado damage, etc.  Seriously, we (the US taxpayer) should help others rebuild from a natural disaster one time (per location).  After that no way.  In addition, if the individual cared so little to not have home/business insurance or flood insurance if in a flood plane, then they should get nothing from the government either.
Jun 19, 2013 4:35PM
The US Government and the US congress along with the US Tax payers need to stop all this bailout B.S. Including wall street and the so called too big to fail banks .. The US Government i.e. tax payers does not need to be in the insurance business..

This a roll of the dice. If you elect to purchase homeowners insurance and your home is destroyed by a raging fire, your assets are covered just as if you had auto insurance and your car was destroyed. But, if you don't have homeowner insurance and this happens, in my opinion, it's “to bad so sad” because you didn't buy proper protection. As a tax payer, I see no need to bail your butt out because you could have been protected but were to cheap to pay for it. If I am wrong, what’s next? Maybe people who are to cheap to buy auto insurance and want to be covered by the government after an accident?...............

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