As Costs of Wildfires Grow, So Does a Question: Who Should Pay?

This in the New York Times addresses a growing question because fighting wildfires costs more and more, and most of the cost is to protect structures that have been built, often knowingly, in areas that are very prone to natural fires.

The debate echos that of who should pay for flood damage when people knowingly build in an area prone to flood, to landslide, to avalanche, etc.

As Costs of Wildfires Grow, So Does a Question: Who Should Pay? New York Times. By Kirk Johnson.






  1. kt Avatar

    I hope Kirk Johnson does a follow-up article on how public lands grazing on BLM and National Forest lands in the West contributes greatly to increased wild land fires and is dooming native ecosystems.

    Joy Belsky wrote an excellent paper in the 1990s on the role of livestock degradation of native understory grasses in promoting increased tree densities – and “doghair thickets” of trees. it is available on-line at in the Resource Library.

    Even worse, is the spread of weeds like cheatgrass and other brome species that is promoted by cattle grazing and trampling disturbance – causing millions of acres to be over-run by weeds and increasing fine fuels. Besides the laughable grazing fee (less than two dollars per month per cow) that ranchers pay, and the predator killing by APHIS, the public also pays for the fire problems caused by cattle.

    Agencies like BLM look at post-fire “rehab” dollars as a bonanza to build more fences (at the cost of a $5000 or so a mile) and carve out more “pastures” and plant more cow food. BLM never “rests” land from grazing long enough for any fire recovery to occur — promoting the grazing-weed-fire-cycle – until we are left with a ecological disaster like the Snake River Plain, many grazed areas of Craters of the Moon, or BLM’s Jarbidge field office. Here, some lands have burned 6 or7 times in recent years, been “rehabbed” at great expense repeatedly – and continue to burn – like the 2005 fire that burned primarily crested wheatgrass (‘rehab” cow food grass) and cattle-promoted cheatgrass.

    This year, Elko BLM is willynilly carving out more pastures with fencing – so that cattle can graze nearly every unburned acre. Following fire, cattle can be placed on private lands and fed hay. Not so sage grouse. The Elko strategy is to use the lavish federal fire funds to fence off unburned lands within a pasture, so they can dump cows on the only food and cover sage grouse and mule deer have left. So further loss of willdife populations occur. Another cost of public lands grazing and a broken federal fire policy to our wildlife!

  2. skyrim Avatar

    Boy, you don’t want to be caught with that attitude around sheep people. You’ll get a long disertation about how they’re keeping your mountain property free from fire danger by chomping up the native grasses. As does those with grazing rights on the mountain where my little cabin sits.

    They still leave the grass behind but in nice little piles of compact, stinkin’ pellets all over the place. Oh….and the flies……….an added bonus.

  3. thehendricksreport Avatar

    “One of the last things you want in an emergency is people squabbling over who’s going to pay,” she said.

    This brings up an interesting point. Last month I covered the Mt. Hood Mountain climbing tragedy on my own blog “The Adventurist” and this same argument was raging over who was going to pay for the rescue of these three lost climbers. Doesn’t our LOCAL, STATE, AND FEDERAL taxes all contribute to helping out causes such as this. The Police, firefighters, and rescue personel are paid by taxpayer dollars..if it is on Federal land…the Federal govenment should pay for it…state land, then the state should pay…and local…well we pay taxes there as well.

    Maybe the government should set up a special branch to cover these expenses due to nature and start going after the funding they need. This goes along the same lines with hurricane Katrina…did everyone expect New Orleans to pay for the total destruction of the whole city?

    I really think this argument…to put it lightly…is STUPID! Our local,state and federeal offices need to get their heads together and quit playing the “blame” card. If everyone is blaming everyone else…and asking for money from everyone else, who is out there trying to get these messes taken care of? It took three days for federal services to get to New Orleans. That should be reason enough to quit all the arguing…

  4. Rob Avatar

    Once again the livestock owner takes all the blame for fires on public lands. Of course, they are also blamed for the fires, for the poor wildlife habitat, for the removal of the wolves, for the damage of all the riparian areas, for the cause of global warming, for the enormous financial burden that our taxes go to fix and repair roads and trails and streams, for loss of camping areas for the outdoorsman, for the lousy fishing in streams. The list goes on and on.

    My question is where do humans play in this role. They are largely responsible for much of what the rancher is blamed for. Have you ever thought that those recreationist with 4-wheelers, suvs, pack animals, motorcycles, and the such contribute to these problems. Of course they do but that is often overlooked and for a reason. I believe those such as kt and other wolf advocates use these reasons to hopefully get cattle removed from public lands.

    Really, the main reason for increase in wildfires is not due to cattle but due to the fact that we have to intervene and extinguish ever little fire that comes around. Using the cattle blame is just another scapegoat for the wolf agenda. There would be alot less wildfires if we continued with the ‘let burn’ policy. There would be less fires, at least large ones, and more and better habitat for wildlife.

  5. JEFF E Avatar
    JEFF E

    This reminds me of the story from this past spring out of Eagle, Idaho when there was a moderate spring run off on the Boise river. There is a housing subdivision that built on what amounts to a island between two forks of that river. To cut to the chase, the home owners association of that subdivision voted to bring suit to force the Army Corp. of Engineers to alter the course of the entire river for several miles to protect the subdivision from flooding. Guess what was the developers major selling point as the sub-division was going in. You guessed it “River Front Property”.

  6. ESH Avatar

    In this age of iPod and mobile phone, many people seem to function under the illusion that the human species is somehow insulated from the kind of environmental limiting factors that impact other organisms. Snow still falls, rivers still flood, and trees still burn. A bit of ecological insight quickly suggests the benefits of these cycles — sediment nutrition, groundwater rejuvenation, habitat heterogeneity, etc. Either we should abandon settling on river floodplains or coastal bluffs or fire-prone foothills, or adopt a more transient existence, and migrate during hurricane season. Or, I suppose, more rationally accept the consequences.

    Like any other animal, we do our best to adapt the environment to suit our needs. But these enormous, elemental forces are not going to be ‘tamed’ or ‘eliminated’ with technology. After all, even the most channelized and industrialized of rivers manage to flex their muscles to violent effect every once in awhile.

  7. Monty Avatar

    I have seen homes in the Bitteroot Valley built on the top of “V” ridges & the bottom of “V” draws with doghair lodgepole pine above & below the homes. Home buyers & realitors should pay the fire the suppression costs!

    Of course, a “measure” of rational land use planning could cure some of these problems but this will not happen in the Montanan “free for all” libitarian world.

  8. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    It’s true that when people build in knowingly high risk areas, everybody pays.

    They often pay in higher taxes (for fire suppression, sandbagging (in the case of floods), rebuilding aid.

    People often pay by higher homeowner’s insurance. If those in knowing high risk areas had to pay full cost home insurance, many of these would never be built. The vast majority would pay less.

    The blame is not individual, however, because federal, state and local governments are often unwilling to take a stand, such as “you keep building in the river, and we’re going to stop giving you emergency aid.”


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan