Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Lecturer helps determine true cost of wildfires

Wildfires are a part of life in the west. Recently, California’s Station Fire, the largest wildfire in Los Angeles County’s recorded history, burned nearly 250 square miles and has been estimated to have cost more than $100 million.

But DU lecturer Lisa Dale says that while fire suppression costs tend to be “reported as an accurate representation of the severity of these fires,” they are just a fraction of the actual costs.

And she would know. Dale served as a researcher and co-author of an April 2009 study by the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition (WFLC), entitled “The True Cost of a Wildfire in the Western U.S.”

“A full cost accounting considers long-term and complex costs, including impacts to watersheds, ecosystems, infrastructure, businesses, individuals, and the local and national economy,” Dale says.

Specifically, these costs include: property losses, air quality damages, health care costs, injuries and fatalities, lost revenues to evacuees and local businesses, infrastructure shutdowns, and post-fire impacts such as flooding, erosion and water quality. And costs associated with the ecosystem can extend into extend into the distant future.

Dale says her research found there was little total fire cost data available and the methodologies used for capturing costs varied considerably. Some of the costs were hard to quantify.

“For example, it is difficult to quantify the cost of reduced health in a person suffering from smoke-induced asthma,” she says.

Dale says a “better understanding of the full accounting of these costs before a fire occurs could be included in future budgeting and planning processes, avoiding painful trade-offs between fire prevention and suppression activities.”

The study concluded that understanding the costs is one piece of actively managing fire risk.

“Active forest management can improve the health and resiliency of the land, reducing fire hazard and associated costs of large fires,” she says.

Dale is an expert in public lands management, environmental policy and climate change. She has been teaching at DU since 2006.

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