How Much Will Future Wildfires Cost the Federal Government?

In mid-November, the White House Office of Management and Budget published a preliminary assessment of the fiscal risks the federal government faces due to climate change. The report examines fiscal risk in five areas that will be directly affected by climate change: crop insurance, health care, hurricane-related disaster relief, flood risk, and wildfire suppression. The risk assessment section on wildfire suppression opens with the following statement:

“While many factors will affect wildland fire and Federal suppression expenditures over the course of this century, the risk posed by climate change for suppression budgets at Federal land management agencies is immense. All else equal, climate change could significantly increase area burned each year in the U.S., causing suppression expenditures to double within just a few decades and nearly triple by late-century.”   

A helicopters drops water and retardant to stop a wildfire in California from advancing. Photo by Andrea Booher/FEMA
A helicopters drops water and retardant to stop a wildfire in California from advancing. Photo by Andrea Booher/FEMA.

U.S. Forest Service scientists conducted the modeling used to draft the report’s section on wildfire suppression. Forest Service Southern Research Station research economist Karen Abt and project leader Jeff Prestemon, along with researchers from the Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station and Fire and Aviation, evaluated how effects from climate change in the U.S. could affect  annual spending to suppress wildfires by the middle and the end of the current century.

The researchers developed a two-stage model, first analyzing historical relationships between area burned on federal land and maximum daily temperatures and other variables, after that analyzing the historical relationship between area burned and suppression spending. Then, using projections of climate derived from general circulation models, they modeled area burned in the future, using this finding to project spending on suppression. They made projections for mid-century (2041-2059) and late century (2081-2099). All projections were made in constant 2014 dollars.

After running the models and projections, they found that:

  • The impact of climate change alone on fire suppression expenditures in the contiguous U.S. could be in the billions each year within a few decades.
  • Median estimates of cost increases due to climate change are $1.3 billion by mid-century and $2.3 billion by the late 2000s, with ranges of $800 million to $2 billion per year and $1.2 to $3.5 billion per year, respectively.
  • The estimated cost increases are the equivalent in today’s economy of approximately $600 million per year during mid-century years and $500 million per year in late century.

Access the OMB preliminary assessment.

Access the Forest Service white paper that details the modeling conducted for the assessment.

For more information, email Karen Abt at

Access the latest publications by SRS scientists.

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