SALT LAKE CITY — Treating overgrown landscapes and forests to help prevent catastrophic wildfires is an effective cost-savings strategy with benefits that play out with enhanced property values and healthier ecosystems, a new report finds.
The independent, third-party analysis was done at the request of Congress and the Office of Management and Budget, which wanted to know if federal dollars invested in hazardous fuels reductions added up to saving money in the long run.
Northern Arizona University's Ecological Restoration Institute conducted the analysis, which will be presented Tuesday to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
"There are few problems in the environment where we have such a solid grounding on what to do," said Diane Vosick, a member of the research team and director of policy and partnerships. "We just need to do more of it."
Vosick, who will testify about the report, said one of the stark realities that those in charge of the purse strings should keep in mind is that a fire's impacts often roll out long after the last ember has been extinguished.
"It is not just a matter of suppressing a fire," she said. "Inaction by the federal government externalizes costs to different levels of government, to states, communities, the nonprofit sector."
Vosick said the Schultz fire near Flagstaff, Ariz., in 2010 cost about $13 million to put out, but racked up $147 million in the horrific flooding that followed, including taking the life of a young girl.
"This is the nasty aftermath," she said. "It was just tragic what happened on the Schultz fire."
Key is for both government and residents to prepare for higher intensity "mega" fires that are predicted to happen with greater frequency if weather cycles hold true, Vosick said.
Each year for the past three years, the Salt Lake City Fire Department, for example, visits East Bench homes to advise residents on what they can to minimize their risks.
Jasen Asay, fire department spokesman, said crews hit those areas that are the most vulnerable because they are nestled in the wildland urban interface.
"We pick those neighborhoods where they have the potential to be caught in a wildfire should one occur," he said.
Residents are advised to keep a "defensible space" around their home — such as trimming back trees and shrubs and to consider fire-resistant landscaping.
"There is always that potential," Asay said. "Every year, somewhere in the state, there are several wildfires, and we want our residents to be prepared."
The department recently visited specific neighborhoods as part of its "Ready Set Go" program.
Vosick said the group's analysis contains findings that local communities should note — such as property values declining in areas where wildfires have happened — with some values plunging by as much as $30,000.
While policymakers often operate with a "dollar in, dollar out" mindset when it comes to analyzing the cost effectiveness of a program, Vosick said that sort of approach ignores the complexity of the problem.
"There really is a cascading effect," with improvements realized in ecosystems and the hydrological health of an area, she said.
"If you restore a forest, especially these dry, Intermountain West forests, you can actually improve the entire hydrologic function of the area, with better soil moisture levels, better water infiltration," Vosick said.
It is not sufficient, either, to simply go after those areas in the wildland urban interface, she said, but landscape treatments should be expanded into adjacent areas.
"Without doing more on places outside the interface, we are still going to be hit with these large, expensive fires," Vosick said.
The report also concludes with what Vosick calls a "rediscovery of common sense."
"The longer you wait to treat forests and the farther they depart from normal conditions, the more it is going to cost you to bring them back," she said.
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