Wildfires Expose Idaho’s Vulnerability

Idaho’s economy and population are heavily exposed to fires, both literally and figuratively. Numerous factors make the state exceptionally vulnerable to the effects of wildfire. In a literal sense, a large share of Idaho’s population lives in areas with no barriers against forested areas, giving a potential fire an easy conduit to burn from the forest to residential areas. According to analysis of U.S. Census data, this makes Idaho’s population the most vulnerable of any state when it comes to wildfires. In addition, the size and importance of Idaho’s recreation and logging industries make local economies susceptible to damage from wildfires.

2015 has been a severe year for forest fires. According to the National Interagency Fire Center (https://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/nfn.htm), fires across the nation in 2015 have burned three times the acreage as the 2014 fire season did. In fact, year-to-date, 2015 is the second worst fire season in the past decade.

There are several ways, both direct and indirect, that fires can have severe impacts on the economy. The most obvious and direct impacts need little explanation, and include the destruction of homes and other property such as that experienced in north central Idaho’s Clearwater Complex fire this summer.

In addition to direct destruction, fires have significant indirect economic impacts, including lost work time as people are evacuated from their homes, reduced tourism spending as fires force people away from natural recreation areas and threatened towns, and significant damage to wood products industries due to Wildfire tablereduced logging access. According to analysis by the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition (http://www.wflccenter.org/news_pdf/324_pdf.pdf), these costs can be more than 30 times as high as the expenses associated with actually fighting the fires. In fact, some estimates have determined that the total costs of a wildfire can range from $400 to $1,500 per acre.

The logging industry can face significant costs associated with forest fires. In addition to the loss of forested areas for logging, lumber companies face decreased productivity due to restrictions associated with fire prevention. For example, most northern Idaho counties have at various times this year been placed under level 2 fire restrictions, which, among other requirements, prohibit the operation of power equipment on forested lands during certain hours when the risk of fire is highest.

In addition, industries associated with tourism are susceptible to the effects of forest fires. Idaho has a successful and significant accommodation industry associated with the state’s expansive opportunities for outdoor recreation. Forest fires represent an enormous disruption to accessing recreation areas. The risk of fires in these areas is much higher than in secluded forest areas. The U.S. National Park Service estimated that as many as 90 percent of all wildfires are caused by human activity (http://www.nps.gov/fire/wildland-fire/learning-center/fire-in-depth/wildfire-causes.cfm), often including negligence surrounding campfires, trash burning and cigarettes. In addition, the smoke associated with forest fires often drives people indoors, reducing the use of those outdoor recreation areas that are not afflicted by fire.

The effects of forest fires on recreation industries can be significant. The graph, “Lodging Sales and Forest Fires – 2002-2013” reveals the impact that forest fires can have on local economics. The intensity of the fire season has a clear negative correlation with revenues in the lodging industry: a key barometer of the tourism economy.lodging sales_fires chart

This potential for reverberating damage throughout the economy means that forest fires are an important issue for more than just firefighters, campers and residents in vulnerable areas. The potential damage to the logging and hospitality industries can have far-reaching impacts on local and state economies.

Fires do not discriminate. They burn public forests, private property, homes and businesses. In addition to the economic and emotional stress this puts on residents, fires leave behind large swaths of collapsed property values, which constrain government revenues. Given Idaho’s unique level of exposure to wildfires, it’s a topic to remain informed about.

Sam.Wolkenhauer@labor.idaho.gov, regional economist
(208) 457-8789 ext 4451