Humans – either intentionally or accidentally — cause more than 55 percent of wildfires on lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Interior. Federal agencies try to prevent wildfire and reduce the high costs associated with it through fire prevention activities that include burn permits, public service programs, outreach efforts, and law enforcement.
Though it’s assumed that the general downward trend in the number of human-caused wildfires on federal lands in the past decade can be tied to prevention efforts, there’s been very little research to document this assumption until recently. An analysis led by Forest Service researcher Karen Abt of new prevention programs in the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) provides evidence that these efforts do indeed reduce wildfire incidents.
In an article published online in the International Journal of Wildland Fire, Abt, research economist with the Forest Service Southern Research Station (SRS) Forest Economics and Policy unit, with co-authors SRS project leader Jeff Prestemon, David Butry from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Samuel Scranton from BIA, report on findings from evaluating wildfire prevention programs on a subset of BIA units across the U.S.
“Using data from 17 BIA tribal units, we modeled the effect of prevention programs and law enforcement on the number of human-caused ignitions in those areas,” said Abt. “We also came up with a partial benefit-cost ratio of continuing prevention activities for the BIA units based on estimates of avoided wildfires and prevention program costs.”
The researchers examined duration of prevention programs in months and employment of full-time sworn law enforcement officers by year. They related these interventions to all types of human-caused wildfires including arson.
Results showed that BIA prevention activities led to significant reductions in certain types of human-caused wildfires (escaped campfires, juveniles, escaped debris burns, and equipment), and that law enforcement significantly reduced arson ignitions.
To develop a partial benefit-cost ratio for prevention programs, researchers used data on the expenditures made for prevention programs for the 17 tribal units and suppression expenditures for all BIA units by BIA region. They found that estimated benefit-cost ratios for continuing prevention programs were greater than 4.5 for all of the BIA regions, showing that the benefits of continuing wildfire prevention programs outweigh the costs of the programs by more than four to one.
“We only evaluated BIA tribal units with active programs, so this study alone cannot show specific effectiveness on all units,” cautioned Abt. “However, this work combined with previous studies continues to strengthen the conclusion that, in general, the benefits of active prevention programs exceed their costs and help prevent wildfires.”
For more information, email Karen Abt at firstname.lastname@example.org.