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Study: Western state budgets hit hard from wildfire costs

Smoke rises above the Snake River Complex fire south of Lewiston in July 2021.
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Smoke rises above the Snake River Complex fire south of Lewiston in July 2021.

The number and size of wildfires in the Western U.S. is expected to grow with climate change. A new analysis shows how much states are paying to put them out.

The study focused on the fiscal impacts to state budgets, and found Western states collectively spent nearly $12 billion on suppressing wildfires between 2005 and 2015. The federal government only reimbursed about 12% of those costs.

The research was published this month in the journal State and Local Government Review by a team at the University of Idaho's College of Natural Resources.

One of the authors, Chelsea Pennick McIver, said most policy makers focus on wildfire costs incurred at the federal level.

"Unlike the federal government, most states are required to balance their budget each year," she said. “So, increasing, or catastrophic, wildfire costs can impact other budget priorities in a pretty significant way.”

All Western states the group surveyed pay for fire costs out of their general funds. Most states allocate general fund appropriations for fires before, and sometimes after, the season. But Idaho, along with New Mexico and Colorado, typically just appropriate the funds after the fire season.

Some states have more unique systems to pay for suppression costs, like Oregon, which, among other things, has a private insurance policy for wildfires.

“That’s a system that kicks in after they reach a certain threshold in expenditures," Pennick said.

The study suggested states may need to consider new funding sources if suppression costs continue to increase.

Pennick said future work in this area could focus on how certain efforts to prevent or mitigate wildfires affect total suppression costs, and could account for other related costs. Those include lost tourism revenue, lost timber value on state endowment lands, and lost life and property due to wildfires.

Wildfires on state-protected lands in Idaho this year cost about $75 million, and the Idaho Department of Lands is preparing to ask the legislature for a budget increase.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

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