These data display the costs per acre in fighting emergency forest fires over the past 20
years. All dollar figures are scaled to 1999 dollars for comparison's sake. The costs are for fighting
emergency forest fires and exclude fighting intentional or managed forest fires (begun in 1995). Furthermore,
these figures only include fire fighting in the National Forest System (NFS), which is managed by the United States
Forest Service, a division of the United States Department of Agriculture. Not included here are data for
fire suppression in private, state, or other federal forests, such as those managed by the Bureau of Land Management
or the National Park Service.
There is a general, increasing trend in the annual number of acres burned in the NFS since
the early 1980's. In 1987, 1.2 million acres burned, the first year since 1919 to exceed 1 million acres.
More than 1 million acres burned again in 1988, 1994, and 1996. In year 2000, 2,138,910 acres burned in the
NFS, mostly in the interior West. These fires were fought at the expense of $1,026,000,000 or $479.68 per acre
(year 2000 dollars). The increase in the number of acres burned is certainly an outcome of years of forest
management practice in which fire suppression was the principal goal. This practice allowed for the excessive buildup
of fuel (woody debris) on forest floors that, when ignited, caused large, hot, and destructive fires. Another
reason for the overall increase in the number of acres burned is the general increase in the number of humans that
visit the forests, especially for recreation. Today about 90% of all forest fires (by acreage) are caused
by humans, rather than lightning.
Why the increasing cost per acre in fighting forest fires? In the journal Fire management
Today, where these data were obtained, Hutch Brown writes, "One result [of the increase in the number
of acres burned] has been a disturbing rise in both total suppression costs and the cost per acre burned.
Large fires in particular can be associated with stunning suppression costs. For example, the 1999 Big Bar
and Kirk Complex Fires in California together consumed more than 227,000 acres (92,000 ha) at a cost of about $178
million." What Brown fails to mentioned is the obvious impact of the growing resident population near
the NFS lands. When houses are near to forest fires, a great number of dollars is spent protecting the structures
from fire damage.
For additional information, visit the websites:
USFS Fire and Aviation http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/
National Interagency Fire Center http://www.nifc.gov/
Data Source: Fire Management Today, Volume 61, No. 3, 2001. United States Forest Service.