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Why does the government encourage people to build homes in wildfire zones?

Over the past week, a giant wildfire has ravaged Colorado Springs, destroying some 473 homes and damaging 17. It's the most destructive blaze in Colorado's history. So is there any way to reduce the damage from catastrophic fires in the future?


There might be. As Andrew Revkin of Dot Earth notes, there are all sorts of government policies currently on the books that subtly encourage people to live in wildfire-prone zones. He points to an important new paper (pdf) by Ross Gorte of Headwaters Economics that explores this very point — and asks whether it's time to reconsider those policies.

The number of people living in fire-prone areas has grown dramatically: Some 250,000 new residents have settled in Colorado's "red zone" over the past two decades. And this is likely to increase further in the years ahead: If you look at all the land out West on the boundary between wildlands and urban areas, Gorte notes, only about 16 percent of it is developed. So there's still a lot of room for new housing in wildfire-prone regions.

And Gorte notes that certain policies appear to provide perverse incentives for building in these zones. State and local governments are mostly in charge of deciding whether to develop this land. Yet the federal government picks up the biggest piece of the tab for fire suppression and protection — now spending about $3 billion per year. In essence, homeowners have been building in fire zones and counting on taxpayers to protect them.

The paper lists a number of ways to alter these incentives. For starters, the feds can tighten fire standards and building codes for homes in these areas. Congress could also limit the mortgage-interest deduction for homes built in especially vulnerable regions — or require homeowners to buy federal fire insurance.

The fire problem will likely become even more acute in the decades ahead. Many scientists think Western wildfires will keep getting larger and more severe for two reasons. Climate change will heat up and dry out the region, making forests more flammable. And modern logging practices and fire-suppression techniques have made forests more susceptible to truly gigantic blazes.

The U.S. Forest Service has proposed changing some of its practices to address the latter issue — by, say, allowing smaller, prescribed burns that make gigantic fires less likely. And, of course, policymakers are still debating policies to slow the pace of global warming. But, Gorte points out, these wildfires will continue to grow more destructive and costly if we insist on building more and more homes in those fire-prone areas.

Further reading:

-- A more detailed look at why Western wildfires keep getting worse.

-- Note that it's not just wildfires. The government also has plenty of policies to help subsidize people living in flood-prone areas. See this old post for much more detail on that.



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Ezra Klein · June 17, 2013

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