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Economic risks: Forest Service estimates costs of fighting wildfires in a hotter future

Sarah Farmer and Jenni Moore Myers
Southern Research Station
May 14, 2024

The hands of a person using a shovel to stir up the coals of a wood pile burn.
A wildland firefighter tends to a burning pile of brush to ensure the fire is contained during work to reduce dead or dying wood that could fuel a wildfire.  According to a White House report, partially written by Forest Service researchers, wildfires are expected to be larger, more numerous, and increasingly expensive. (USDA Forest Service photo by Andrew Avitt)

Wildfire suppression is costly. Over the last decade, suppression has cost the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and the Department of the Interior an average of more than $3 billion per year.  

What will these costs look like in the future? The Climate Financial Risk report published by the White House Office of Management and Budget provides some estimates. Forest Service researchers contributed to that report.

“We analyzed 10 future climate scenarios and a wide range of projections for fire extent and fire suppression spending,” said Jeff Prestemon of the Forest Service Southern Research Station. Prestemon is a senior research forester and lead author on the chapter that relates climate to wildfire and suppression spending.  

Across the globe and the U.S., land and sea temperatures are warming. Wildfires are burning hotter and moving faster. The wildfire season has lengthened, so much so that we now refer to it as a fire year. These changes are projected to intensify.  

The Forest Service is treating landscapes for hazardous fuels, one of many Wildfire Crisis Strategy actions. In 2023, the Forest Service in collaboration with partners, communities and tribes treated more than 4.3 million acres of hazardous fuels across the country.

But according to the analysis, a central estimate across the ten future climate scenarios shows that lands in the National Forest System would experience a near doubling of the area burned by mid-century (2041-2059). In one scenario, the area burned by wildfire would quadruple (estimates range from a 42% to a 306% increase).  

Suppression expenditures also are projected to rise. A middle-of-the-road estimate is a 42% increase in costs by 2050, to $3.9 billion, while some estimates suggest that costs would increase by 84%. In the decades after 2050, costs could rise by 17% to 283%, with a median annual expenditure of $44.9 billion by late century. The team accounted for inflation by converting all future spending to 2022-dollar equivalents.

Tired firefighter sits on bridge with his pack and tool
Wildfires, exacerbated by a changing climate, are taking a toll on wildland firefighters, natural resources and financial resources. A 2024 White House report provides some estimates. (USDA Forest Service

Report contributor Jeffrey “Frenchy” Morisette of the Rocky Mountain Research Station stressed that the estimates do not include every cost of wildfire management.

“We considered only suppression expenditures, not wildfire-related damages in terms of people, property and resources,” he said.

The report builds on similar work done in 2016 and 2021-2022. For the new report, the team looked back further in time, to 1993. They also considered additional potential drivers of wildfire and other updates.  

“We took great care to account for how wildfire, spending and its drivers vary across space and time,” says Prestemon. The researchers discuss their assumptions, methods and models in the full report.

Understanding and reducing wildfire risk is a key focus of our land management strategies. One of the most effective tools for this strategy—prescribed fire–is also essential to the health of many forest ecosystems.

Read more about fire research from the Southern Research Station and the Rocky Mountain Research Station.