NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Mulling The Forest Fire Threat

May 30, 2000

A building boom in once-remote woodland areas, where many Americans fulfill their dreams of second homes for weekends or vacations in isolated settings, has increased the risks of wildfires and put the homeowners in conflict with environmental groups.

  • Across the country, the damage caused by wildfires to homes and property increased six-fold from the 1980s to the 1990s -- to a total of $3.2 billion over the last 10 years.
  • In an average year over the past decade, 1,200 homes burned -- more than double the number over the previous decade.
  • Already this year, more than 40,000 wildfires have consumed more than a million acres -- more than in any similar period since 1996.
  • The number of wildfires that destroy 1,000 acres or more in the U.S. has increased to a recent average of about 80 a year from 25 a year in 1984.

Experts estimate that about 90 percent of wildfires are caused by humans, and the Forest Service estimates that about 40 million Americans live in what it calls the "urban/wildland interface" -- directly adjacent to or scattered within unpopulated areas with wild land vegetation.

The only alternative to "controlled burns" to remove brush and other natural fuel before a potential wildfire gets started is to enlist lumber companies to do the work as part of logging contracts.

But such arrangements have been fought by environmental groups. In Ashland, Ore., for example, a Forest Service plan to reduce the risk of a fire has been blocked for the last four years by critics opposed to the fact it would allow timber companies to carry out new logging.

Source: Douglas Jehl, "Population Shift in the West Raises Wildfire Concerns," New York Times, May 30, 2000.


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