Idaho’s firefighters have their hands full these days. As of Monday, the Boise-based National Interagency Fire Center reported seven active large fires in Idaho, second only to Nevada next door. While the primary objective of firefighting is obvious - to put out the fire - there are lots of ways to measure success, besides just time, dollars spent, and, most importantly, safety. In particular, the way we value resources saved is critical to how we score the success of putting out a fire and, thereby, assess the cost-effectiveness and efficiency with which we utilize our firefighting resources.
Let’s first stipulate that safety takes top priority. While we know people are willing to make tradeoffs between risk and money (we don’t all buy the safest possible car) we do not accept likely loss of life to, say, protect a building. Saving human lives is of the utmost importance.
After stipulating this first priority, we can then turn our attention to the optimal way to suppress and ideally prevent fires. Do we focus our protection on targets with the highest market values? How do we balance expensive homes and smaller ones; buildings and watersheds providing clean drinking water; recreation sites and historical or cultural resources? Fire line officers and incident managers face challenging tradeoff decisions and we need to support our managers as best we can, especially as fire suppression efforts consume an increasing majority of the U.S. Forest Service budget.
The National Interagency Fire Center and the U.S. Forest Service have made great strides in disseminating information to our line managers about values at risk. One well-known model, for example, provides incident managers and others with detailed information about the value of resources threatened by wildfires. Output is organized into two tiers, the first covers primary assets, such as private structures and public infrastructure, including water supply systems and power lines. The second tier includes information about natural resources and wildland management priorities. This information is critically important, but there is still a lot of work to do.
In particular, while computer models provide information about resources at risk, at the end of the day, our society needs to assign weights to these different resources, weights that might be different than some market-based valuation. Our take on measuring the cost-effectiveness of fire suppression efforts is that there is no one gold standard that values resources at risk. Different metrics will likely yield different results, and this variation can shed a lot of light on the way we fight fires in the future. Using one valuation metric only is likely to conceal more than it reveals, and lead to distortions in the efficient allocation of our scarce firefighting resources, especially with respect to ecosystem-management goals.
More information about resources at risk could be very helpful to our line managers and our community in general as we learn more about what is at stake when fighting wildfires. The fire research community has made great strides in developing tools to understand resource values at risk. This is the right direction, and we need to keep moving forward.
More immediately, however, as our firefighters work overtime to suppress Idaho’s series of active wildfires, our responsibility is to support them as they make difficult decisions and to do everything in our control to help prevent future fires. We wish our brave firefighters all the best. Godspeed.
Dr. Kevin E. Cahill and Dr. Mark Buckley contributed to this commentary. Dr. Cahill is a senior economist and the managing director of ECONorthwest's new office in Boise, Idaho. He is experienced in labor and health economics, public policy, and commercial litigation and antitrust matters. Dr. Buckley is a senior economist and managing director. He specializes in natural resource and environmental economics. The views expressed here are their own.
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