How Do Wildfires Impact The Local Economy And Community?

April Flowers for – Your Universe Online

By the middle of August, nearly 7 million acres have burned in wildfires in the U.S. making this a record-breaking year for wildfire destruction. As of yesterday, the National Interagency Fire Center puts that number at 8,392,209 acres since January 1, 2012. This acreage comes from 712 large fires that have been contained so far this year.

How does this kind of natural disaster affect the surrounding communities?

Large wildfires, despite the wanton destruction they leave behind, are a mixed economic bag for nearby communities according to a study by the University of Oregon‘s Ecosystem Workforce Program.

The study, funded by the Joint Fire Science Program, finds that wildfires disrupt the lives of workers, employers and families, and leads to longer-term instability in local labor markets. In contrast, however, countywide employment and wages increase in some sectors during the wildfires, often mitigating the short-term employment disruptions the wildfires caused.

“The increased spending on services related to fire suppression efforts certainly does not undo the social and economic damage caused by a wildfire,” said Cassandra Moseley, director of the Ecosystem Workforce Program and the Institute for a Sustainable Environment.

“But that initial burst of money does offset some of the immediate economic damage.” Moseley said. “How the Forest Service spends its suppression money greatly influences how a community experiences a fire.”

Employment and wages tend to increase in a county during a large wildfire, but those same fires often lead to longer-term instability in local labor markets, by amplifying seasonal “ups and downs” in employment over the subsequent year. Tourism and natural resources are the sectors most affected in the months following a fire. These are often vital to the well-being of rural communities.

There has been little previous research on the effects of large wildfires on local employment and wages. The study, done in collaboration with researchers at the U.S. Forest Service, analyzed the impacts on labor markets as well as the extent of economic relief that results from spending on fire suppression. The purpose of the study was to help fire managers, policy makers and community leaders understand the short- and long-term effects of wildfires so they can better plan for the challenges and opportunities wildfires present.

Fire suppression money spent by the U.S. Forest Service in the counties where large wildfires occur ranges from zero to 25 percent, but averages around 6 percent. Rural and resource-dependent counties take the biggest hit from wildfires because of their limited capture of fire suppression spending.

The study is based on an in-depth case study of the community economic impacts of a series of wildfires in Trinity County, California, in 2008, along with Bureau of Labor Statistics and Forest Service data that compared labor market trends in selected Western counties between 2004 and 2008. The research group will be releasing a number of reports later this year that detail the study’s results.