With active wildfires in 10 states this weekend burning a total of nearly 687,000 acres an area larger than the state of Rhode Island the escalating cost of fighting fires is a rising concern. Nearly 12,000 men and women have deployed to fight fires, primarily in California and other Western states, but also in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.
All told, 2008 has seen nearly 3.5 million acres burned, or an area the size of Connecticut.
Most fires, of course, burn wilderness areas, where the cost is measured in danger to firefighters along with time, effort, equipment, materials and air support. But as more and more people move into fire-prone areas, the number of homes in harm's way is also increasing, along with the costs associated with fighting wildfires, whether or not firefighters win or lose local battles.
A fire in California has most recently destroyed 12 homes built near Yosemite National Park, according to the Associated Press.
The cost to federal taxpayers has gone up dramatically, to $1.37 billion last year, according to the Los Angeles Times. A decade ago, we spent just 22% of that.
The rising cost is not only a function of our development patterns, but fire patterns. Part of the reason we're seeing so much more fire these days has to do with a policy that led to decades of fire suppression, which in turn led to the buildup of combustible fuels like brush and deadwood. But scientists tell us that global warming is producing conditions that make the West more susceptible to fire: Less mountain snow produces less runoff; higher temperatures increase evaporation; and more frequent and intense storms produce more lightning that sparks new flames.
Which means the cost of fighting fires, if we can keep up, will only increase in the years to come.
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