Wildfire season is upon us, and already resort communities are feeling the heat as the severity and intensity of wildfires is on the rise. That’s bad news for outdoor recreation and the places that depend on healthy forests and outdoor tourism to support local economies.
The Stromberg Fire was a relatively small and quickly contained fire near the resort mountain town of Leavenworth, Washington, that burned over Memorial Day weekend in late May 2017. In addition to its Bavarian-themed village, Leavenworth draws visitors for rock climbing, hiking, rafting, trail running, and general exploration of the Cascade Mountains.
The fire was contained before it exceeded 50 acres, according to the Chelan County Fire District, but evacuations and media headlines positioned this small incident as a harbinger of what’s to come this wildfire season.
"Because of the quick response of fire crews and state resources, it was over very quickly" says Jessica Stoller, media director for the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce. “Business in town didn’t seem to be affected by this fire, despite some of the media coverage.”
Still, Stoller says her community is well aware of the potential economic and social impact of wildfires. "Living in a mountain town, our business owners know the challenges that natural disasters like fires can bring," she said. “Our residents and business owners continually clear their areas of fire hazards and choose fire-resistant building materials and practices that minimize the spread of fire.”
In mountain towns like Leavenworth, there’s always a threat of wildfires with the potential to decimate the primary revenue generator of these tourism-dependent communities. Even now resort towns all across the country are in various stages of recovery after recent, severe wildfires swept them off their feet. The tragic Gatilinburg, Tennessee, fire of 2016 took 14 lives near Smoky Mountain National Park.The Sobranes Fire in July of the same year took place along the coast of central California cost over $260 million in suppression efforts alone, making it the most expensive wildfire on record.
No one knows where incidents like these might strike next. The costs of suppression efforts as well as the damage sustained by these wildfires are usually both severe. Add in the indirect costs associated with a decline in tourism and the direct hit to the recreation-based economy, and the sum can be devastating for these communities.
Local Economies Feel the Burn
Unfortunately, the threats associated with wildfire are only expected to increase. According to the United States Forest Service (USFS)’s report on the rising cost of wildfire, the six worst fire seasons on record have all occurred since the turn of the century. Since 2000, most western states have also experienced the largest wildfires in their state’s history.
The hard truth is that the cost of wildfire suppression today is around five times greater than it was in the 1980s. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 2015 was the most expensive year on record for fire suppression. For the first time, spending topped over $2 billion dollars. In comparison, the average cost of fire suppression from 1985 to 1995 was only about $400 million.
Federal land agencies under the Department of Agriculture (including USFS) and the Department of the Interior (DOI) are literally burning through their budgets to fight these wildfires. In 1995, wildfire costs made up 16 percent of the Forest Service’s annual budget. In 2015, however, it consumed more than 50 percent of the funds allocated for fire as well as important education, trail management, and prevention programs.
The rising cost of wildfires perpetuates a downward spiral in which fire agencies are forced to spend their prevention budget on suppression efforts, leaving nothing in the tank to mitigate future disasters.
Resort and mountain communities feel the burn economically when federal funding is transferred away from important functions like fire prevention and maintenance. These regions typically rely on recreation infrastructure on public lands to support local guide shops, restaurants, lodging, and other small businesses. When recreation is jeopardized in these towns, so is the entire economic infrastructure and way of life.
The Potential Impact of Legislation
The current presidential administration has proposed even more cuts to important land management agencies in its 2018 budget. These cuts include an 11 percent cut to the DOI, and unspecified cuts to the USFS. They come at a time when land management agencies are in dire need of more funding, not less, to mitigate the severe consequences of wildfire.
"A broken fire funding system takes money from the rest of the USFS and DOI budgets, which greatly impacts towns surrounded by public land," said Diana Madson, executive director of the Mountain Pact, a nonprofit that advocates for mountain towns impacted by climate change and works on wildfire funding reform.
A bipartisan bill to reform wildfire funding was reintroduced to Congress on June 8, 2017, a move welcomed by the Mountain Pact, the Nature Conservancy, and other prominent environmental organizations. House Resolution 2862, the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2017, would change how the federal government funds the suppression of large wildfires, making the process more in line with how other natural disasters are funded. It is similar to the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2015, which had 150 bipartisan cosponsors in both the House and Senate but did not receive a vote before the congressional session ended.
"Wildfire funding reform is critical for the economic and environmental vitality of Western mountain communities," said Madson. “This bill would not only provide emergency relief funding to protect our communities from more frequent and severe wildfires, but it would also significantly reduce impacts on programs that support recreation infrastructure on federal lands – the crux of our local economies.”
While this is great news, there’s a lot of work to be done under the current political climate in D.C. to ensure that funding reform is pushed through.
Leavenworth dodged a bullet with its first fire scare of the season, but this community is proactive in addressing what needs to be done both locally and legislatively to combat the danger of wildfire.
"Leavenworth has had a voice in state and federal discussions about forest health, return of responsible logging, appropriate controlled fires to clean the forest floor of too heavy ground cover, and fire spreading hazards," Stoller said. “Without a managed forest, a wildfire has the ability to get out of control more easily and the effects are more devastating.”
Communities dependent on outdoor recreation can’t afford to turn a blind eye to the conversation regarding funding and wildfire reform. In fact some would argue that they should be leading them.
For more info check out How Destinations Can Bounce Back from Natural Disasters.
Originally written for RootsRated Media.