Panel Paper: Burning Down the House: Wildfire and the Benefits of Responding to Natural Disasters

Friday, November 9, 2018
Taylor - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Matthew Wibbenmeyer, Resources for the Future

As wildfires within the western U.S. become more frequent, more severe, and costlier to manage, it is increasingly important to allocate responses to wildfire efficiently. To do so, managers need to understand both the costs and benefits of potential response strategies. Yet like other natural disasters, while we have estimates of damage and management costs associated with wildfires, we know very little about the benefits of disaster responses. In the case of wildfire, this is largely because it is difficult to know how a fire might have spread in absence of suppression.

In this paper, I estimate avoided losses to private property due to wildfire suppression using a two-step strategy. In the first step, I use historical fire perimeters, a novel spatial duration model, and outputs from a state-of-the-art wildfire simulation tool, to estimate the relative contributions of fire suppression effort and physical factors to the probability a wildfire will be extinguished. The spatial duration model provides a tractable econometric strategy for estimating a spatial dynamic model of wildfire management. The wildfire simulation tool—Minimum Travel Time, a model used by wildfire managers while managing actual wildfire incidents—facilitates identification of the effect of suppression effort by providing a measure of how fires might have spread in absence of suppression.

Estimates of the spatial duration model are used in the second step to predict fire spread probabilities with and without suppression effort. I combine these with predictions with the spatial distribution of structures values across California to compute estimates of avoided structure losses due to wildfire suppression for a set of California fires between 2012 and 2015. Comparing estimated benefits of wildfire suppression to reported costs, I find that the net benefits of fire suppression vary substantially across fires. While in some cases wildfire suppression generates large net benefits, avoided losses to structures do not justify costs of suppression for many wildfires—especially those that begin in remote areas. While this paper does not consider the full range of possible benefits associated with fire suppression, it suggests that suppression spending may be unwarranted for some more remote wildfire incidents.

Full Paper: