Alaska had a historic wildfire season this year — the abnormally warm and dry early summer months brought hundreds of fires, reaching 1 million acres at the earliest date ever recorded. By season’s end, more than 3 million acres had burned.
With that rising acreage comes a rising financial toll. A new study from the PEW Charitable Trusts examined six state governments to determine how they’re paying that toll. They found that the actual cost of fires was often obscured — in Alaska, for example, the state routinely underfunds wildfire costs up front, only to pay them off later.
Study author Peter Muller explains that this is possible because Alaska uses a unique after-the-fact budgeting option called “ratification.”
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Peter Muller: This is an interesting process that was specific to Alaska. Alaska allows their emergency agencies, their forestry agency, to spend above their appropriated amounts for wildfire spending. And then they send a request for ratification of that to the legislature that gets approved, sometimes a year or two after the money has actually been spent.
Michael Fanelli: Why does it matter that an over-reliance on post-fire funding mechanisms like that emergency or supplemental appropriations might obscure the true costs of fires?
Peter Muller: So if you’re trying to figure out how much to spend on mitigation to invest, to keep those suppression costs down, it’s really important to know how much you’re actually spending on suppression. If you are under-budgeting for suppression in the front end, you might not think it’s worth it to make a large investment in mitigation. But the better view you have of how large that suppression costs actually is, the more informed you can be in your decision making in investing for the long term and investing for those more preventative measures.
Michael Fanelli: From a budgetary perspective, why would it make more sense to spend on preventing fires than putting them out?
Peter Muller: So as these fires are getting more and more expensive to fight, year after year. The only way to reduce that cost in the long term is to spend money now on mitigation efforts — things that will reduce the severity of the future fires and slow the growth of the spending needs going forward.
Michael Fanelli: Is there a way to measure whether prevention and mitigation measures have been effective? I mean, how do you know how many fires would have otherwise happened?
Peter Muller: That’s a great question. It depends on the type of mitigation to some degree. There aren’t great studies that put an actual dollar amount on individual mitigation efforts. What I can say — Alaska, in particular, has done a lot of focus on firebreaks. And I believe there have been anecdotally some notable examples of communities being protected by these firebreaks that were installed in advance. And you can see that the fire burned up to the break but not cross over it, therefore protecting numbers of homes.
If you do mitigation activities, what you’re hopefully doing is making it so the next fire is a small, manageable fire and not a giant, out of control, catastrophic fire. Putting a dollar amount on the number of catastrophic fires that didn’t happen is going to be an inherent challenge. We didn’t hear anyone who had done a great job of putting a specific dollar amount. But experts we spoke to were pretty much universally in agreement that mitigation efforts were going to reduce the long term costs of wildfire and were an essential part of this process.
Michael Fanelli: The report says that Alaska, for the first time in around 15 years, did set aside $15 million for fire fuel reduction. Did you get a sense from talking to experts here that they might focus more on mitigation going forward?
Peter Muller: Experts definitely spoke of a lot of interest in investing in mitigation, how that was a priority that had risen to a higher level than it had been in the past. Particularly speaking of a lot of interest in building more firebreaks to protect communities in the state. The money that was appropriated was done through the capital budget, which is a one time process. So there is no evidence that there is something in place now that would provide continued ongoing funding, but it certainly was something they expressed a lot of interest in.