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NAU official: Forest management reduces wildfire damage

A Northern Arizona University official told a U.S. Senate committee Tuesday that the government needs to be more aggressive about managing forest growth and reducing fuels that feed uncontrolled wildfires.

Diane Vosick told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources that the costs of forest management can be repaid many times over in reduced severity and losses from wildfires.

“The question becomes, can we afford not to treat?” asked Vosick, the director of policy and partnerships for NAU’s Ecological Restoration Institute.

Vosick was one of six witnesses at the hearing called to “explore ways to improve wildland fire management.” It comes as several states have seen wildfires of historic magnitude in recent years, and “2013 is predicted to again be an intense fire season,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

Wyden, the committee chairman, said  forecasts also show the challenges posed by wildfires are only going to grow in coming years, which calls for management actions like those outlined by Vosick and the other witnesses.

“And yet, this year’s budget request from the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior calls for dramatic cuts to hazardous fuels treatments, ” Wyden said.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell testified that his agency has to find ways to fund programs while minimizing the effect on all Forest Service operations.

But Vosick said the best way to save money is to invest a little now in forest management. She presented a recent study by the institute, “The Efficacy of Hazardous Fuel Treatments,” that used the Schultz Fire as an example of the benefits of preventive forest maintenance.

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That fire burned more than 15,000 acres near Flagstaff in 2010, and the report put the full cost of the blazes at more than $133 million. Treating a significant portion of that land could have reduced “a great amount of the cost of the fire,” Vosick testified.

Even if the forest had been treated “at the high cost of $1,000 per acre,” Vosick said, every dollar spent would have returned savings of $9 to $10 “in avoided fire and flood cost.”

The study showed that treating just 23 percent of the landscape over 10 years would reduce acres burned by 64 percent and suppression costs by 69 percent.

Besides helping to reduce wildfire damage, Vosick said forest management can benefit water quality and stop erosion as well.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., also valued the role of fuels reduction and restoration treatments in fighting wildfire.

“If we treat the areas, it’s worth it economically, it serves its communities, it saves its forest, it saves endangered species,” Flake said.

And, Vosick repeated, it saves money in the long run.

“You’ll either pay at the beginning or pay at the back end,” she said.

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Xi Chen/Cronkite News Service

Witnesses at the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources listen to Diane Vosick, right, who testified that more aggressive forest management is needed to stem wildfire. Most of the other witnesses made similar arguments.

The cost of a wildfire

Northern Arizona University surveyed residents affected by the Schultz Fire and came up with the following preliminary costs and loss estimates for their report, "The Efficacy of Hazardous Fuel Treatments":

  • Loss in property value: $59,353,523
  • Government agencies: $59,104,394
  • Loss of life: $6,000,000
  • Structural damage: $3,097,978
  • Cleanup: $1,825,127
  • Unpaid labor: $1,516,103
  • Armoring: $823,100
  • Home contents: $548,235
  • Fire evacuation costs: $223,572
  • Flood insurance premiums: $198,034
  • Habitat: $400,000 – $14,200,000
  • Total: $133,090,066 – $146,890,066