UW graduate explores costs associated with housing development patternsWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Laramie – Anna Scofield was a wildland firefighter for 10 years before pursuing her graduate degree at the University of Wyoming (UW), and her thesis received the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association Top National Thesis Award in 2015.
“I knew I would be most inspired if I was doing some sort of fire economics. That’s what helped me choose wildland fire as the topic to study. I am hoping that this research and future studies can increase firefighter safety and point more of the discussion of cost and safety at the wildland-urban interface,” she explains.
Firefighting costs have increased dramatically over the past decade, according to National Interagency Fire Center data, and Forest Service firefighting budgets have been a topic of discussion at state and national levels.
“I understand why there is hesitation to talk about the impact of houses on suppression costs. There is much more discussion about fuel reduction and reducing fire risk, which is, of course, the goal as well. But studies have shown that the wildland-urban interface plays a huge role in suppression costs,” she says.
Scofield and her team analyzed fire data provided by the Forest Service about fires in Colorado, Montana and Wyoming to statistically evaluate how the pattern of residential developments impacts firefighting costs.
The researchers contended that both spatial patterns of housing developments as well as the relationship between clusters of houses would impact the expense of fighting fires.
“On one end of the spectrum, there is a suburban neighborhood where houses are quite close together. On the other end, there is a big lot development where houses are more scattered,” she describes.
How communities or clusters of houses are dispersed on the landscape may also be important, for example, if they remain on one side of a fire or become separated by flames.
“The spatial pattern is about efficiency. Fewer firefighting resources can protect more houses if those houses are a little bit closer together,” she notes.
The same analogy works for air tankers or individual firefighters trying to protect a maximum number of structures with as few resources as possible.
Scofield and her team used an index to measure costs in relation to spatial development patterns and found that costs were reduced when buildings were placed closer together on the landscape.
“We looked at the entire spectrum. The way our model worked, we showed an effect of both moving from suburban to slightly dispersed patterns as well as moving from already scattered patterns, to even more scattered,” she explains, commenting that keeping structures in close proximity reduces the resources, and therefore costs, required to suppress the flames.
“Our results were pretty intuitive for us, but the magnitude of the cost differences was surprising. One data set showed how much one house can cost, given a certain pattern,” she continues.
Scofield hopes this data will influence discussions in urban planning, especially where new developments meet wildlands.
“The actual pattern hasn’t been part of the discussion at all yet, and we are really excited to feel like we provided another little piece of the suppression cost puzzle, which is a huge issue for federal agencies right now,” she says.
Investigating how developments are impacted by fire could lead to new zoning regulations and incentives for smart urban planning, creating housing arrangements that can be protected more efficiently in the case of wildfire.
As for houses that are already placed on the landscape, Scofield recommends keeping a defensible space around buildings to reduce necessary fire suppression efforts.
“If homeowners create defensible space so it’s safe for firefighters to be there, if they have what we call ‘safety zones’ at the house where firefighters could stay if they had to while a fire passed, that would certainly be cheaper than having a house that required air support to protect it,” she explains.
Although this particular study didn’t evaluate individual risk factors or specific budget items, Scofield hopes that it opens the door for a more detailed look into how development plays a role in the costs of fire suppression and safety of firefighters.
“It’s not about trying to tell people where they can’t live. It’s about trying to have an alternative for places that really have a problem,” she remarks.